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Workshops - Key Issues on Campus

The Emergence of "Crazy" Students in the Academy: The Mad Students Society

Lucy Costa

Lucy Costa is a part time Bachelor of Arts student at York University. She is co-founder of the Mad Students Society and is an activist in the psychiatric survivor community. She works full time as an advocate in a psychiatric facility, where she is responsible for outreach, education and systemic advocacy.


Post-secondary students with ‘mental health’ experiences can find themselves alone and isolated due to a lack of resources and support within the academic environment, or because academic resources themselves are limited in scope and favour biomedical models. “Mad” students are often spoken about indirectly in colleges and universities but are rarely acknowledged as relevant agents in developing course material and critical pedagogy.

This presentation will discuss the importance of supporting students to mobilize and participate in shaping curriculums; how to connect younger “mad” students with experienced activists and the “psychiatric survivor movement”; and reframing classroom discussions and language to be more inclusive of “mad” students’ diverse identities.



“Hi, I am a crazy person,” Lucy Costa said. She described the Mad Students Society (MSS) and their concerns, as well as the emergence of mental illness—which she termed madness—in academic settings.

Costa explained that members of the mentally ill community identify themselves in diverse ways. Just as the lesbian and gay community reclaimed the word “queer,” members of the mad community self-identify as mad, crazy, or lunatic. Others refer to themselves as psychiatric survivors or inmates, while others use more mainstream terms like “mentally ill.” For many, using non-mainstream terms is a way of helping others understand that not everyone identifies with his or her diagnosis, and not everyone wants to be “cured.”

The MSS works to empower, support, and mobilize students who have experienced or will experience the psychiatric system. Members share their experiences and the rich history of the mad community. The MSS also identifies barriers, addresses systemic discrimination, provides peer support, and promotes self-advocacy.

Most important, said Costa, the MSS is an alternative to biomedical perspectives of mental illness. Members can discuss their diagnoses, but the focus is on creating a space where people can find ways of speaking about their experience beyond the traditional biomedical perspective.

Costa identified several issues faced by mad students. Students with mental illnesses face a lack of consistent accommodations standards across colleges and universities. Disability service providers also tend to lump together rights advice and counselling. These should be separate offices, said Costa, because students who need accommodations or are facing academic discrimination do not necessarily need or want counselling. Private institutions such as business schools are of particular concern, since they are unregulated and are under no obligation to provide accommodations, she said.

Classroom discussion is another area of concern, since while professors and students “can’t get away with making racist remarks, they can get away with making bigoted remarks about psychiatric disabilities,” Costa said. Mad students must choose between staying silent in the face of discriminatory remarks or constantly speaking out “and sounding like a radical leftist.” Moreover, she said, curricula that study mental health issues are written without any consultation from the mentally ill community.

Costa provided several possible solutions, including developing consistent standards for psychiatric disability practices across universities and colleges, and giving students a role in developing evaluations. Classroom discussions should be inclusive, and professors should not assume that everyone shares the biomedical perspective. Counselling and rights advice should be separated, and human rights training should be provided every year.

Costa urged participants to spread the word about the MSS. Mad students can get involved by joining in mad pride events, putting up posters, sharing their stories and history, and knowing their rights. Above all, she said, “Dismantle mentalism!”

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