SOUTH AFRICA’S second annual Mad Pride event is being held on Saturday 12 July, with the theme: Celebrate Difference, Combat Alienation, Stigma and Xenophobia. A patient bedpush to Valkenberg Mental Hospital followed by a Bonkersfest at Oude Moulen Village are on the agenda, as is the delivery of a Memorandum on Madness to Cape Mental Health.

Mad Pride developed as an offshoot of the Psychiatric User-Survivor Movement and has come to embrace values synonymous with other pride events, such as Gay Pride. The event is an attempt to reclaim the language of sanity/insanity with a move away from psychiatric labeling and the machinations of clinical psychology towards a more holistic model that includes psychosocial disability.

Despite the lofty aims of our constitution, SA has a history of denial of human rights, intolerance of difference, and suppression of individuality. Mad Pride is an attempt to change all of this by recognizing the role that eccentricity, otherness, non-conformity, difference and plain weirdness plays in society. If we were all the same, say the organisors, life would be exceedingly dull, there would be no feats of extraordinary functioning, no heights of reasoning, no emotional depth of feeling. We would all suffer poverty of expression and view the world in a mechanistic way. In fact Mad Pride itself is at risk of homogenization as the rubric of mental illness continues to be deployed by the press to describe people whom society disagrees with, whose views are not ordinary and opinions short of the mundane.

The South African experience cannot be divorced from reality. Our nation is far from the norm. We are fighting for our rights as human beings, to be considered first and foremost as people who are a part of society, and also as citizens in possession of rights. Any illness or psychosis that is apparent should be seen in this context. In fact both Psychiatry and Psychology are falling behind the pace of development in areas that affect both cognitive rights, and the mind-body continuum.

For example article 12 of our constitution gives South Africans the right to psychological integrity. The recent Convention on the Rights of the Disabled recognizes self-ownership as integral to the experience of users and survivors of psychiatry.

How often are our rights violated by well-meaning individuals who merely wish to probe or inquire into the human condition? Humanity is not reducible to an equation, and neither is the spirit of rebellion which is at the heart of the Mad Pride Movement world-wide. What we are doing therefore is taking a well-considered break from a long tradition of labeling others as mentally ill merely because they do not conform to a particular stereotype or modality.

To give examples of mental diseases that have turned out to be nothing more than works of fiction: Drapetomania a disease experienced by slaves who desired freedom. Hysteria, a disease suffered by women before they had the vote. Homosexuality was not very long ago considered an illness as was Sado-Masochistic Sex – simple role playing.

Science does not have all the answers and thus Mad Pride is for people who have experienced insanity or madness and wish to reclaim their lives from the shrinks. In time, we will come to accept that life is not a bed of roses. We all have ups and downs. Without agitation and confrontation nothing changes. Depression and Anxiety has meaning beyond the clinic, and even what is termed the holy grail of psychiatry, schizophrenia, is nothing more than a spiritual mystery revealing the conundrum of our existence.

Organisations such as MindFreedom International, WNUSP, ICARUS/INDLOVU Project and Ubuntu Centre are all campaigning for insight into life that does not loose the critical element of the individual in the context of society. UBUNTU comes from the familier Xhosa phrase that is explained as I am because you exist. We aim on putting this existential philosophy in practice by accepting Madness as part and parcel of our everyday life.

Madness in the African tradition is also something holy. It can be terrible for those afflicted, either accepted as a gift, or a a vision or rejected as not useful and meaningless experience but it is NOT a noun. One is MAD at something. We are MAD because society continues to enforce stigma and discrimination by insisting on clinical labels that strip away suffering by making the human condition more palatable for scientists. Psychiatric labels have entered every walk of life until it has become impossible to have a conversation without referring to them, as if Science offers an advance on whatever writers and poets have to say about life the universe and everything.

Children are no longer allowed to be simply children, they have ADHD or Attention Deficit Disorder. Adults are no less than automatons, at the beck and call of big business. Unless we are critical of psychiatry and psychology and ask questions such as: What are we doing to the next generation with our computer games, our television monitors and internet screens, we are going to loose something unique to the human spirit — the very thing that makes us human and fallible, as we all become more like the machines and economic system we create and less the creations of Mother Nature.