In response to this article, a mental health worker I know questioned how people could say that madness is just a “difference” and not an illness, and yet also claim that people who are mad deserve disability payments. In response, I wrote the following, which attempts to sort out the connections between mad pride and gay pride, and how both might relate to the topic of “disability.”
I agree that the issue of what is just a difference, that one can realistically be proud of, and what is a disability, is an interesting one.
One may be blind, and be to some extent disabled by that, and yet feel that one’s life has been enriched and not deprived overall as a result of the experience. One might need help from others at various times due to being blind, yet also have unique gifts and perspectives to offer to others as a result of one’s blindness.
Mental differences are even more complex.
Years ago, if a young man came into a psychiatrist’s office, reporting that he could not work because he was distracted by overwhelming anxiety and suicidal thoughts prompted by strong feelings of attraction to other men, his affliction would be considered to be his homosexuality and efforts would be made to turn him straight so he could be happy and not disabled. These efforts would likely have just made things worse. The same young man, coming into a psychiatrist’s office now, would hopefully be told he could learn to accept himself as different than others, that this difference was not itself an illness, and that once he did accept it and learn to live successfully with it he would not be ill at all. The young guy might even be referred to people who will teach him to take pride in his differences, and to find others who will appreciate him just for those differences. (He will still make a lousy husband for your daughter, and to that extent will be disabled, but on the other hand he may make a great boyfriend for your gay nephew, so overall there is no disability.)
These days, if a person comes into a psychiatrist’s office and reports that he or she is distressed due to hearing voices and having various kinds of strange experiences and perspectives, he or she is likely to be told that all of this is due to the person’s mental illness, and the psychiatrist will attempt to change it all as much as possible, to make the person “normal.” Yet, research on the general population shows that many people are living fine out in the world who regularly hear voices and have strange beliefs and experiences. Somehow, they manage all this without a lot of distress or disability. What “mad pride” is about is helping people with strange experiences and perspectives to make the shift from being distressed and disabled by their differences, to learning how to accept and enjoy them, and even see them as having value.
The Icarus Project, in which Will Hall is active, speaks of “negotiating the space between brilliance and madness.” So there is an implication that the person has to learn how to manage his or her “dangerous gifts.” With appropriate management skills, there is no longer disability.
What we really have to learn from the mad pride movement is similar to what we had to learn from gay pride: that it is to a great extent the person’s and society’s ignorance of what to do with differences, and not the differences themselves, that are the problem. People can still be disabled when they haven’t found out how to manage their differences, and so they really do deserve disability at that point, but they can also potentially learn how to navigate out of the disability and perhaps become something amazing. Or at least have an enjoyable life, while still being “different.” This is most likely to happen when both the person and the helpers see the possibility of it happening and have some kind of roadmap of how to get there.
So there’s a beginning of an answer. I know it’s hard for those who see “schizophrenia” as nothing but a “biological illness” to consider some of these possibilities, but I think if we really keep studying all the links between creativity and madness , and listen to people who have been there like Will, we will start to get it.