Mad People’s History by Steve Tilley

Steve Tilley chose to speak about Mad People’s History course developed in Ryerson University, Toronto Canada and how it has reached out all over the world causing much discussion to happen around how we perceive mental health

This time it is about first hand experience documented by people who have encountered the psychiatric system…The 12th June was a great night and benefited from having Steve share his vocation in plain: Good evening – Kirsten and I feel privileged to have this opportunity to tell you about projects we feel passionate about. I will tell you about two videos that form part of Mad People’s History, an online course from the Cheng School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University that won a Canadian award for best videography in an online course, last year.


The videos are on You Tube – so we could all be viewing them as so many individuals in front of a bunch of computers but this is different: we are some kind of cross-section of who knows what communities in this part of the world, and having who knows what understandings of what madness might be, and what might be meant by ‘mad people’s history’.


We share this great social space for a bit of shared learning about a community in another part of the world, facilitated by a gifted teacher who identifies as mad, all under the Ragged umbrella.


The course teacher, David Reville, who will tell you a bit about his own story in the first video, is a part-time adjunct associate professor at Ryerson University. David self-identifies as a psychiatric survivor (survivor of the psychiatric system) and mad person for, and has done so in a career including periods as a local and provincial elected politician and special advisor to the premier of Canada when his party was in power.


Geoffrey Rea David developed his course from an outline by Geoffrey Reaume – one of the people you will see in the second video – who teaches a course of the same name at York University.


I will give you a brief introduction to the videos, and Kirsten MacLean will follow with an account of a local project, Oor Mad History. Both Mad People’s History and Oor Mad History are parts of a call and response, or dance, over the last 12 years, between folk in the Toronto psychiatric survivor community and academic and other allies (notably Kathryn Church, Director of Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies); and counterparts in Lothian, including service user/survivor, academic and service allies. I hope tonight is also a kind of call, or step, in international knowledge exchange – mediated online; and international community development.

David Reville
David Reville


David describes the course as an archive of the survivor movement in Toronto –  we will be seeing a bit of that archive in the second video where survivor leaders tell what terms they use to describe themselves, and why they use those terms.


As you will hear, David says Mad People’s History is a collection of stories; how he uses an iconic painting to illustrate the difference between the history of psychiatry and mad people’s history (It’s Blanche – David sees the ‘hysterical’ woman being talked about by the psychiatrist as Charcot’s prop. “It’s Blanche we don’t get to hear about” and says “I want to change that”. You could say David is an advocate for hearing the stories of mad people.


He says the other reason he is interested in the history of madness is because he has a mad history of his own: he brings his story into the online classroom. His personal mad history intersects mad people’s history. You could say David’s is history from a personal standpoint.


When he was compulsorily detained as a young man in law school, David had time to think – to form an analysis – Madness is different if you’re a woman, gay, working class, Mohawk. History and personal experience of madness are structured by intersections of class, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation.


I hear the intersection of David as survivor and mad person, with David the politician, when he tells how he and others, politicized by their experiences in mental hospitals decided to work together for change. Those identities tell us what’s at stake for the people telling the stories: survival.  In the second video David leads us through his territory, streets of Toronto, survivor-run organizations, and ask these survivor leaders what they call themselves and why. The interviews with these people . The focus is on the politics of identity assertion, negotiation, contestation.


We see slogans on the video walls: “too much sanity is madness”; “we hold this truth that all humans are created different”. And we hear Lucy say self-labelling – as a lunatic – for her is about “owning the word and owning the history of the word.”


Owning the word and owning the history of the word. Lucy is doing personal historical work, from – and for – her standpoint.  As mental nurse, academic involved in mental health and policy community engagement, I find the videos, and David’s course, challenge me to think, and feel, differently about the words I use and the words I own, and my own histories, mad elements and all.


These two videos among the materials for the first two of the course’s 14 modules. There is a further video on YouTube for those of you who want to see a later module, in which David uses the metaphor of tables to tell the history of the survivor community he helped form. From getting to the tables to tabling our critique. I will give a handout with references to follow up, for those who want them.

Thank you…


This course, like many others is online and available to watch for free over the internet. You can find it by typing Introduction to Mad Peoples History into Youtube…