the end of term last spring, Jijian Voronka stood
before 120 people at Ryerson University and clicked
the play button for a short video made by a former student in her History of Madness course. Ms. Voronka
watched the audience of mainly Ryerson staff and faculty as the student’s over-sized words scrolled across
a video screen: “I only got four hours of sleep again”
and “I’m not depressed.” The student had made the
film about herself and titled it “A little slice-of-life video about madness and why a girl isn’t looking for the
light at the end of the tunnel,” tracking herself on camera as she spiralled
into exhaustion. When Ms. Voronka clicked the stop button at the end of
the video, no one said a word.
Ms. Voronka, a sessional instructor in Ryerson’s school of disability
studies and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, had faced challenging audiences during
events like this one; she was hoping this audience wouldn’t “pathologize”
the student. The talk, offered with two colleagues, was called “Making
Mad Studies,” and it was part of a series on diversity at Ryerson.
Mad studies is an emerging, interdisciplinary field, mainly in the
social sciences and humanities, that expresses a radical new voice in
academe about madness. Ms. Voronka often speaks to academics and
professionals about mad studies and says she expects most listeners to
be steeped in 150 years of psychiatric biases about madness, or as a col-
league puts it, “clogged with sanism.”
After Ms. Voronka finished, Jennifer Poole, an associate professor
in Ryerson’s school of social work, defined sanism for the audience this
way: “A belief system that makes it okay to pick on, make fun of, discrim-
inate, reject, silence, discredit, pathologize, de-centre, kindly undermine
and commit violence against the mad. Sanism is an oppression, it is the
reason for stigma, and it can happen even with the best of intentions.”
That day, the audience was receptive to the definition and presenters.
Instead of asking “patronizing” questions about people with mental ill-
nesses, such as “Why do they go off their meds?”, this audience focused
on how to create safe environments and better supports for students, fac-
ulty and staff. In Ms. Voronka’s opinion, this was progress.
Mad studies is based on a simple idea: listen to mad people and look
at madness from their points of view. More than 10 years ago, Ryerson’s
school of disability studies and York University’s graduate program in
critical disability studies pioneered mad studies. It’s not yet a program,
but a series of courses that deconstructs medical models of “
schizophrenia,” “psychosis” and madness in general and puts them in historical context. The courses look at different concepts of madness, surveying social,
medical, political, economic, cultural and religious factors that influenced
madness from ancient times to the present.
“Mad studies doesn’t reject medical models of madness [but it puts]
them into a historical trajectory, one that shows that psychiatry isn’t an
absolute interpretation of human mental states,” says Kathryn Church,
an associate professor of sociology and director of Ryerson’s school of
disability studies and the third speaker at the presentation.
Afterwards, Ms. Voronka disclosed in an interview that she was a
“mad professor,” the same description she uses when she introduces herself to her students in the History of Madness course. She offers this label
to summarize a part of her identity that started in her 20s when she was
poor, living in a rough neighbourhood and seeing a psychiatrist every
second day. Madness is still part of her identity, she says.
“Some students immediately have a problem with the word ‘mad,’”
she says. “Students will ask, ‘Why do you use that word? It’s so negative.’”
The word changes how she teaches and also highlights one of the purpos-
es of the course: to offer knowledge from mad people themselves.
Students, says Ms. Voronka, “start to think about their own bodies,
genders, races, sexualities, and if they’re sane or mad.” They start to think
about the power dynamics and language around madness as a social issue,
rather than madness as only a medical problem within an individual.
“The language is political and represents a radical new voice,” offers
Dr. Church. Mad people are reclaiming the word “mad” the way gay