July 15th was Mad Pride, and I celebrated by reflecting on the newly released, ‘Mad World’ by Micha Frazer-Carroll.
The book reads like a breath of fresh air, as it provides a much-needed approach to mental health – one which is firmly rooted in a necessary anti-capitalist and abolitionist politics.
Exploring and rejecting the harmful limitations of ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns and diagnoses, Frazer-Carroll asks us to reckon with what ‘sanity’ would even look like in a world which works ceaselessly to drive us mad.
Frazer-Carroll approaches her discussion of mental illness through an explicitly political lens. In light of the demands of historical and contemporary capitalism, Frazer-Carroll asks us to question how the borders of mental illness are drawn – who gets categorised as mad, and why.
As Frazer-Caroll identifies, ‘Madness/Mental Illness are not the stable, concrete, or God-given categories that we are often led to believe they are’.
Frazer-Carroll questions whether the treatment of ‘mad’ people through the asylums and torture methods adopted in the past are uniquely villainous, arguing that modern ‘treatment’ for mental illness, purporting to be based in science and ‘rationality’, can be equally unpleasant, and drawn from similar ideologies.
This links to her broader disability justice approach, drawing on the work of theorists such as Mike Oliver who have questioned how much of disabled oppression comes from our bodies/minds, and how much from a society which is designed to exclude bodies/minds like ours.
Frazer-Carroll also addresses the ways in which particularly marginalised groups are more likely to lead less bearable lives, to be categorised and labelled as ‘mad’, and that this madness is more likely to be responded to with violence and oppression.
Frazer-Carroll explicitly counters the narrative that ‘mental health does not discriminate’ in a vastly discriminatory world.
People of colour are traumatised by navigating a ceaselessly racist society, and face increased diagnoses of mental illness. Black people, especially, see their genuine mental distress responded to with violence.
Frazer-Carroll succinctly observes that ‘Black distress is interpreted through the psychiatric gaze as irrational, dangerous and primal – something to be attacked rather than understood’. This analysis feels particularly prescient following the killing of Jordan Neely, a Black man experiencing distress on a subway, and the subsequent justifications given for that killing.
Similarly, borders enact violence which produces madness and disability. Trans people are subjected to oppression that leads to increased suicidality, whilst transness itself is framed as a mental disorder.
As Frazer-Carroll concludes: ‘The world makes us Mad, and then goes on to define who is pathologised as mad, and how they are treated’. Ideas about madness are inseparable from the other systems of oppression which dominate our society.
Perhaps most importantly, Frazer-Carroll’s book offers a sharp critique of contemporary responses to madness and mental illness. Frazer-Carroll warns against the flattening nature of attempts to fully understand mental health through mental health ‘awareness’ campaigns, and the way these campaigns prioritise the least taboo experiences of mental illness.
Contemporary approaches also erase the violence and inaccuracy of diagnosis and treatment, and which groups are able to access care, or are subjected to involuntary medicalisation.
Phrases like ‘everyone has mental health’ can not interrogate what it really feels like to be suicidal, and mask the ways in which certain types of madness are excluded from these messages, instead facing the sharp end of sanism.
Within these frameworks, the responsibility for eradicating sanism is often placed on the very people who experience it, by encouraging them to ‘speak out’ and to ‘bust stigma’.
Frazer-Carroll rightly notes that whilst celebrities in some contexts may receive a positive reaction for being vulnerable about their mental health, a mother who does the same may see her children taken away.
Instead, we should understand the limited use of ‘awareness’, become more comfortable with what we cannot understand, and prioritise empathy over attempts to diagnose, categorise, and process madness into oversimplified ‘rational’ confines. She summarises:
‘Ultimately, we cannot ever definitively know mental health, and so many of the ways we currently try to know it are restricted, oppressive or depoliticising.’
Whilst its critiques are incisive, Frazer-Carroll’s project remains an ultimately hopeful one, which posits disability justice as a tool for our liberation.
Frazer-Carroll encourages those of us who are mad to embrace the radical politics which permeates the disability justice movement, from crip theory to the importance of interdependence.
She powerfully argues that although whether those of us who are mad choose to identify as disabled is ultimately a personal choice, we should recognise that disability forms more than just an identity, but is rather a way of understanding and approaching our mad world: ‘disability is possibility’.
Frazer-Carroll ties this to art as a mad liberation tool, focusing particularly on the power of the zine. Engaging in an abolitionist project, Frazer-Carroll also invites us to imagine other possibilities for our approach to madness, reflecting on, for example, the ‘Trieste’ model of mental health care, which centres anti-carcerality, as opposed to domination and control.
These calls for a better world are what makes ‘Mad World’ a truly powerful book, as it uses its criticisms of madness in the present to invite us to build a better future, together.
Mad World by Micha Frazer-Carroll is available now at Pluto Press
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