The Identity of Psychiatry and the Challenge of Mad Activism: Rethinking the Clinical Encounter

[Introduction to an essay currently in press with the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy]

Psychiatry has an identity in the sense that it is constituted by certain understandings of what it is and what it is for. The key element in this identity is that psychiatry is a medical speciality. During the early years of their training, medical doctors make a choice about the speciality they want to pursue. Psychiatry is one of them, and so is ophthalmology, cardiology, gynaecology, and paediatrics. Modern medical specialities share some fundamental features: they treat conditions, disorders, or diseases; they aspire to be evidence-based in the care and treatments they offer; they are grounded in basic sciences such as physiology, anatomy, histology, and biochemistry; and they employ technology in investigations, research, and development of treatments. These features characterize modern medical specialities even as physicians are increasingly framing their work in ways that take account of the whole person, recognising conflicting values and their implications for diagnosis and treatment, and acknowledging the role of the arts and humanities in medical education and practice (see, for example, Cox, Campbell, and Fulford 2007; Fulford, van Staden, and Crisp 2013; Cook 2010; and McManus 1995).

Psychiatry differentiates itself from other medical specialties by the conditions that it treats: mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. The nature of its subject matter, which are disturbances of the mind and their implications, raises certain complexities for psychiatry that, in extreme, are sometimes taken to suggest that psychiatry’s positioning as a medical speciality is suspect; these include the normative nature of psychiatric judgements, the explanatory limitations of psychiatric theories, and the classificatory inaccuracies that beset the discipline.

There are significant, ongoing debates in these three areas that do not, at present, appear to be nearing resolution. But these debates are themselves superseded by a foundational challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality, a challenge that emanates from particular approaches in mental health activism. These approaches, which I will be referring to as Mad activism, reject the language of ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental disorder’, and with it the assumption that people have a condition that requires treatment. The idea that medicine treats conditions, disorders, or diseases is at the heart of medical practice and theory, and this includes psychiatry in so far as it wishes to understand itself as a branch of medicine. In rejecting the premise that people ‘have’ a ‘condition’, Mad activism is issuing a challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.
In this paper I examine how psychiatry might accommodate the challenge of Mad activism in the context of the clinical encounter.


Best of 2018 Philosophy List by Oxford University Press


Check out Oxford University Press’ list of articles chosen from across its journals to represent the ‘Best of 2018’.

My article In Defense of Madness: The Problem of Disability is included under the entries for the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy.

For other articles, I enjoyed reading Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters in The Monist.


This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

In Defense of Madness: The Problem of Disability

By developing a perspective on the social model of disability and by appealing to the concept of intelligiblity, I respond to arguments against Mad Pride activism. You can access the articlm_covere HERE.

The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Volume 44, Issue 2, April 2019, Pages 150–174,


Abstract: At a time when different groups in society are achieving notable gains in respect and rights, activists in mental health and proponents of mad positive approaches, such as Mad Pride, are coming up against considerable challenges. A particular issue is the commonly held view that madness is inherently disabling and cannot form the grounds for identity or culture. This paper responds to the challenge by developing two bulwarks against the tendency to assume too readily the view that madness is inherently disabling: the first arises from the normative nature of disability judgments, and the second arises from the implications of political activism in terms of being a social subject. In the process of arguing for these two bulwarks, the paper explores the basic structure of the social model of disability in the context of debates on naturalism and normativism, the applicability of the social model to madness, and the difference between physical and mental disabilities in terms of the unintelligibility often attributed to the latter.


Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, In Defense of Madness: The Problem of Disability, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Volume 44, Issue 2, April 2019, Pages 150–174,

Mad Activism and Mental Health Practice

On the 6th of August 2018 I delivered a live webinar that was part of a Mad Studies series organised by Mad in America. The aim of the webinar was to explore ways of incroporating ideas from Mad activism into clinical practice. The full recording of the webinar and the accompanying slides can be found below.


More Things in Heaven and Earth


For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot


Madness & the Demand for Recognition

mandess cover

After four years of (almost) continuous work, I have finally completed my book:

Madness and the Demand for Recognition: A Philosophical Inquiry into Identity and Mental Health Activism.

You can find the book at the Oxford University Press website and at A preview with the table of contents, foreword, preface, and introduction is here.

Madness is a complex and contested term. Through time and across cultures it has acquired many formulations: for some, madness is synonymous with unreason and violence, for others with creativity and subversion, elsewhere it is associated with spirits and spirituality. Among the different formulations, there is one in particular that has taken hold so deeply and systematically that it has become the default view in many communities around the world: the idea that madness is a disorder of the mind.

Contemporary developments in mental health activism pose a radical challenge to psychiatric and societal understandings of madness. Mad Pride and mad-positive activism reject the language of mental ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’, reclaim the term ‘mad’, and reverse its negative connotations. Activists seek cultural change in the way madness is viewed, and demand recognition of madness as grounds for identity. But can madness constitute such grounds? Is it possible to reconcile delusions, passivity phenomena, and the discontinuity of self often seen in mental health conditions with the requirements for identity formation presupposed by the theory of recognition? How should society respond?

Guided by these questions, this book is the first comprehensive philosophical examination of the claims and demands of Mad activism. Locating itself in the philosophy of psychiatry, Mad studies, and activist literatures, the book develops a rich theoretical framework for understanding, justifying, and responding to Mad activism’s demand for recognition.


Response to Order/Disorder, Kai Syng Tan’s UCL Institute of Advanced Studies Talking Points Seminar

5th December 2017

Title of seminar:

Order/Disorder – The artist-researcher as connector-disrupter-running messenger? 

by Dr Kai Syng Tan

My response:

Thank you very much for inviting me today.

I was pleased when I received this invitation, not only because it meant I can return to the IAS where I spent a year a couple of years ago, but because Kai’s work is hugely important, as well as being relevant to my work in philosophy and psychiatry.

For too long there has been a gap between, on one hand, social and professional understandings of mental health conditions and, on the other, individuals’ own understanding of their experiences and situation. There wasn’t much of a conversation going on, or if there was, it was framed in terms that emphasise disorder and deficit.

For some time, activism in mental health has been trying to change this, by demanding that people are heard on their own terms.

But then how do we bridge this gap, how do we create the possibility for generating shared understandings of the various mental health conditions? Just what do we to do? Well, we do what Kai is doing: inventive projects that bring people together, engage them in creative activities that unsettle some of their assumptions and broaden their  understanding, perhaps even their sense of empathy. For this kind of progress, it is not sufficient to give people information; they need to have an experience, and as I see it, Kai’s work provides both. 


There is a point I would like to make and to have your opinion on: it has to do with the distinction between order and disorder.

I came to this distinction first as a doctor and then as a researcher in philosophy and psychiatry. In philosophy, the concept of mental disorder has been the subject of many search and destroy as well as rescue missions over the past twenty-five years.

The key point of contention was whether or not we can define disorder (or more precisely, dysfunction) in purely factual terms, for instance as the breakdown of the natural functions of psychological mechanisms. The goal in such attempts was to define dysfunction in terms that do not involve value-judgements.

These attempts were not successful: at some point in the process of describing the relevant mechanisms and their functions, value-judgements sneak in.

Now demonstrating the value-ladenness of the concept of disorder does not mean that it suddenly disappears; and it does not mean that the boundary between order and disorder vanishes into thin air. It just means that it has become a much more controversial boundary than previously thought, and the distinctions it involves are difficult ones to make.

My point is that making qualitative distinctions among behaviours and experiences – whether our own or other people’s – is not optional: it is part of how we understand ourselves and understand others as psychological and social beings. 

That being said: even if the distinction between order and disorder – or between whatever terms you wish to use – even if that distinction is inevitable, it is one that we continually ought to attempt to transcend.

 Why should we attempt to overcome it? Because there might be order in what appears to be disorder, and disorder in what appears to be order; because in attempting to transcend this distinction we can grasp what it is that we share with others and not just what sets us apart; and because there’s no telling on which side of that distinction any of us is going to fall one day.

 It is precisely this paradox that we need to be conscious off and work with: the paradox of accepting the inevitability of a distinction while at the very same time seeking to transcend it. And I wonder what you think of this?


The other point I want to make has to do with the relation between our research and the activism that is connected to it. I must admit that in my own work I’ve frequently thought about this but I have not yet arrived at a satisfactory view. The question of course is broader than our area of research and applies to the humanities in general: to what extent should a researcher commit to the social cause they are researching, and what does this mean for the objectivity of what they are producing. What kind of balance do we need to strike here? And have you thought about this in your work?

The Meaning of Madness

mandess cover

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book “Madness and the Demand for Recognition”. Forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2018

Mad with a capital m refers to one way in which an individual can identify, and in this respect it stands similar to other social identities such as Maori, African-Caribbean, or Deaf. If someone asks why a person identifies as Mad or as Maori, the simplest answer that can be offered is to state that he identifies so because he is mad or Maori. And if this answer is to be anything more than a tautology – he identifies as Mad because he identifies as Mad – the is must refer to something over and above that person’s identification; i.e. to that person’s ‘madness’ or ‘Maoriness’. Such an answer has the implication that if one is considered to be Maori yet identifies as Anglo-Saxon – or white and identifies as Black – they would be wrong in a fundamental way about their own nature. And this final word – nature – is precisely the difficulty with this way of talking, and underpins the criticism that such a take on identity is ‘essentialist’.

Essentialism, in philosophy, is the idea that some objects may have essential properties, which are properties without which the object would not be what it is; for example, it is an essential property of a planet that it orbits around a star. In social and political discussions, essentialism means something somewhat wider: it is invoked as a criticism of the claim that one’s identity falls back on immutable, given, ‘natural’ features that incline one – and the group with which one shares those features – to behave in certain ways, and to have certain predispositions. The critique of certain discourses as essentialist has been made in several domains including race and queer studies, and in feminist theory; as Heyes (2000, p. 21) points out, contemporary North American feminist theory now takes it as a given that to refer to “women’s experience” is merely to engage in an essentialist generalisation from what is actually the experience of “middle-class white feminists”. The problem seems to be the construction of a category – ‘women’ or ‘black’ or ‘mad’ – all members of which supposedly share something deep that is part of their nature: being female, being a certain race, being mad. In terms of the categories, there appears to be no basis for supposing either gender essentialism (the claim that women, in virtue of being women, have a shared and distinctive experience of the world: see Stone (2004) for an overview), or the existence of discrete races (e.g. Appiah 1994a, pp. 98-101), or a discrete category of experience and behaviour that we can refer to as ‘madness’ (or ‘schizophrenia’ or any other psychiatric condition for this purpose). Evidence for the latter claim is growing rapidly as the following overview indicates.

There is a body of literature in philosophy and psychiatry that critiques essentialist thinking about ‘mental disorder’, usually by rebutting the claim that psychiatric categories can be natural kinds (see Zachar 2015, 2000; Haslam 2002; Cooper 2013 is more optimistic). A ‘natural kind’ is a philosophical concept which refers to entities that exist in nature and are categorically distinct from each other. The observable features of a natural kind arise from its internal structure which also is the condition for membership of the kind. For example, any compound that has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen is water, irrespective of its observable features (which in the case of H2O can be ice, liquid, or gas). Natural kind thinking informs typical scientific and medical approaches to mental disorder, evident in the following assumptions (see Haslam 2000, pp. 1033-1034): (1) different disorders are categorically distinct from each other (schizophrenia is one thing, bipolar disorder another); (2) you either have a disorder or not – a disorder is a discrete category; (3) the observable features of a disorder (symptoms and signs) are causally produced by its internal structure (underlying abnormalities); (4) diagnosis is a determination of the kind (the disorder) which the individual instantiates.

If this picture of strong essentialism appears as a straw-man it is because thinking about mental disorder has moved on or is in the process of doing so. All of the assumptions listed here have been challenged (see Zachar 2015): in many cases it’s not possible to draw categorical distinctions between one disorder and another, and between disorder and its absence; fuzzy boundaries predominate. Symptoms of schizophrenia and of bipolar disorder overlap, necessitating awkward constructions such as schizoaffective disorder or mania with psychotic symptoms. Similarly, the boundary between clinical depression and intense grief has been critiqued as indeterminate. In addition, the reductive causal picture implied by the natural kind view seems naive in the case of mental disorder: it is now a truism that what we call psychiatric symptoms are the product of multiple interacting factors (biological, social, cultural, psychological). And diagnosis is not a process of matching the patient’s report with an existing category, but a complicated interaction between two parties in which one side – the clinician – constantly reinterprets what the patient is saying in the language of psychiatry, a process which the activist literature has repeatedly pointed out permits the exercise of power over the patient.

The difficulties in demarcating health from disorder and disorders from each other have been debated recently under the concept of ‘vagueness’; the idea that psychiatric concepts and classifications are imprecise with no sharp distinctions possible between those phenomena to which they apply and those to which they do not (Keil, Keuck, and Hauswald 2017). Vagueness in psychiatry does not automatically eliminate the quest for more precision – it may be the case, for example, that we need to improve our science – but it does strongly suggest a formulation of states of health and forms of experience in terms of degrees rather than categorically, i.e. a gradualist approach to mental health. Gradualism is one possible implication of vagueness, and there is good evidence to support it as a thesis. For example, Sullivan-Bissett and colleagues (2017) have convincingly argued that delusional and non-delusional beliefs differ in degree, not kind: non-delusional beliefs exhibit the same epistemic short-comings attributed to delusions: resistance to counterevidence, resistance to abandoning the belief, and the influence of biases and motivational factors on belief formation. Similarly, as pointed out earlier, the distinction between normal sadness and clinical depression is difficult to make on principled grounds, and relies on an arbitrary specification of the number of weeks during which a person can feel low in mood before a diagnosis can be given (see Horwitz and Wakefield 2007). Another related problem is the non-specificity of symptoms: auditory hallucinations, thought insertion, and other passivity phenomena which are considered pathognomonic of schizophrenia, can be found in the non-patient population as well as other conditions (e.g. Jackson 2007).

Vagueness in mental health concepts and gradualism with regards to psychological phenomena undermine the idea that there are discrete categories underpinned by an underlying essence and that go with labels such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or madness. But people continue to identify as Women, African-American, Maori, Gay, and Mad. Are they wrong to do so? To say they are wrong is to mistake the nature of social identities. To prefigure a discussion that will occupy a major part of Chapters 4 and 5, identity is a person’s understanding of who he or she is, and that understanding always appeals to existing collective categories: to identify is to place oneself in some sort of relation to those categories. To identify as Mad is to place oneself in some sort of relation to madness; to identify as Maori is to place oneself in some sort of relation to Maori culture. Now those categories may not be essential in the sense of falling back on some immutable principle, but they are nevertheless out there in the social world and their meaning and continued existence does not depend on one person rejecting them (nor can one person alone maintain a social category even if he or she can play a major role in conceiving it). Being social in nature they are open to redefinition, hence collective activism to reclaim certain categories and redefine them in positive ways. In fact, the argument that a particular category has fuzzy boundaries and is not underpinned by an essence may enter into its redefinition. But demonstrating this cannot be expected to eliminate people’s identification with that category: the inessentiality of race, to give an example, is not going to be sufficient by itself to end people’s identification as White or Black.

In the context of activism, to identify as Mad is to have a stake in how madness is defined, and the key issue becomes the meaning of madness. To illustrate the range of ways in which madness has been defined, I appeal to some key views that have been voiced in a recent, important anthology: Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (2013). A key point to begin with is that Mad identity tends to be anchored in experiences of mistreatment and labelling by others. By Mad, Poole and Ward (2013, p. 96) write, “we are referring to a term reclaimed by those who have been pathologised/ psychiatrised as ‘mentally ill,'”. Similarly, Fabris (2013, p. 139) proposes Mad “to mean the group of us considered crazy or deemed ill by sanists … and are politically conscious of this”. These definitions remind us that a group frequently comes into being when certain individuals experience discrimination or oppression that is then attributed by them as arising from some features that they share, no matter how loosely. Those features have come to define the social category of madness. Menzies, LeFrancois, and Reaume (2013, p. 10) write:

Once a reviled term that signalled the worst kinds of bigotry and abuse, madness has come to represent a critical alternative to ‘mental illness’ or ‘disorder’ as a way of naming and responding to emotional, spiritual, and neuro-diversity. … Following other social movements including queer, black, and fat activism, madness talk and text invert the language of oppression, reclaiming disparaged identities and restoring dignity and pride to difference.

In a similar fashion, Liegghio (2013, p. 122) writes:

madness refers to a range of experiences – thoughts, moods, behaviours – that are different from and challenge, resist, or do not conform to dominant, psychiatric constructions of ‘normal’ versus ‘disordered’ or ‘ill’ mental health. Rather than adopting dominant psy constructions of mental health as a negative condition to alter, control, or repair, I view madness as a social category among other categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, or ability that define our identities and experiences.

Mad activism may start with shared experiences of oppression, stigma and mistreatment, it continues with the rejection of biomedical language and reclamation of the term mad, and then proceeds by developing positive content to madness and hence to Mad identity. As Burstow (2013, p. 84) comments:

 What the community is doing is essentially turning these words around, using them to connote, alternately, cultural difference, alternate ways of thinking and processing, wisdom that speaks a truth not recognised …, the creative subterranean that figures in all of our minds. In reclaiming them, the community is affirming psychic diversity and repositioning ‘madness’ as a quality to embrace; hence the frequency with which the word ‘Mad’ and ‘pride’ are associated.