Mad But Not Crazy: On 'Suicide' and the 'Psy' Complex

September 15, 2011


This column has a pretty clear bias in favor of clinical psychology, as a way of working through pain. AAMMS also has a particular read of certain patterns of second-generation familial conflict and mental health. But important dissenting views ask important questions, so do keep reading for some thought-provoking challenges to our assumptions.


You probably know a friend or family member who had a positive experience with a psychiatrist or a therapist. Yet acknowledging a bodily reality (we can call them “feelings and needs”) does not necessitate psychiatric language. Most of the time, that is the available language for us, given to us by our family doctors, colleagues, teachers, peers. Even then, there is the possibility of expressing our experience otherwise; so the Mad movement holds. In this article, I reflect on the political costs of treating mental illness neurochemically and psychologically.

The Mad movement offers alternative ways of naming elation and distress -- our different “habits” or “moods.” Some of us may use medical language to describe ourselves: mania, depression, obsession. But many others prefer different terms -- such as “extremes of consciousness,” “unusual beliefs” -- or no terms at all. Maryse Mitchell-Brody of The Icarus Project in New York has described how our feelings can inform us of what’s wrong with the world, rather than what’s wrong with us (what we commonly call “symptoms”).

Members of the Mad community may also identify politically as psychiatric survivors. Psychiatric survivors are people who have experienced the mental health system and feel psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, and similar helping professions (called the “psy” complex) can be ineffective, harmful, and even violent. The “psy” complex does not just exist in the hospital or the therapy room, but is pervasive in other spaces such as schools, settlement services, and prisons. It’s present any time behavioral language and psychological practices are put into effect in a workplace. Psychiatric survivor scholars and activists explore how psychiatry is a tool for detention and social control. We lobby to end forced drugging, electroshock, restraint, seclusion, institutionalization, and outpatient torture.

The “psy” complex does not only “punish” through direct torture, however. Its theories and techniques have also historically been used in the service of maintaining national and supranational agendas. Mental health assessment can be used as a tool to “recover” attitudes favourable to those in power. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one example. PTSD has been widely perceived as the responsible recognition of the consequences of sexual violence, war, and death on the human body. However, as Vanessa Pupavac argues, humanitarian aid can also disqualify people from determining their own affairs through mass diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. In translating people’s memories of war, their feelings and thoughts about war, and critical responses to war into clinical symptoms such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance of stimuli, the diagnosis of trauma can reduce political action into evidence of disorder.

Trauma has also taken other forms besides PTSD, in unique versions such as Residential School Syndrome (RSS). Chrisjohn, Young, and Maraun documents psychiatry’s involvement in Canada’s consolidation of stolen Indigenous lands, through the use of RSS to pathologize Indian residential school survivors as sick, rather than angry (i.e., demanding accountability). More recently, Jonathan Metzl argues the professional discovery of paranoid schizophrenia during the Civil Rights protest was a response to black protest and a strategy to contain and discipline black men. Black men who expressed non-Judeo-Christian beliefs, who criticized the state, and who expressed ideas about freedom were institutionalized under the new “paranoid” subtype. Paranoia was used to describe delusions that were persecutory or grandiose, such as “accusations” by a black patient that white police officers beat him, or “bizarre” religious beliefs in Islam.

In spite of these histories, both Metzl and Pupavac reinscribe the authority of psychiatric expertise through arguing that the cost of using diagnostic labels to pacify political protest is the misdiagnosis of real, existing mental illness. Their aim is to discern the racist use of mental health from benevolent uses of mental health, which fails to consider the perspective of the user: What if I do not want to represent, interpret, and treat my experience through the symptoms, illness, drugs, or therapy the medical world prescribes? What if I want an alternative?

Mad politics center self-determination and self-definition of our needs and ways of living. We have stories -- of how the medical interventions we encounter are scarier than our own nightmares (daymares?). We have poetry -- and comic strips, films, and zines -- that describe our experience in terms contrary to the theories of our “helpers.” We accept that we do not need to be functioning or “productive” all of the time, though sometimes we are forced to be. One tenet of the Mad movement is a belief in fostering non-clinical, non-therapeutic, community-based support systems outside of mainstream mental health. As one mantra goes, “friends make the best medicine.” Interdependency is nurtured as opposed to independence. For example, when a close friend of mine in the community is struggling, one strategy is to offload little responsibilities that crowd our lives: I’ll offer to do her laundry, stay over and cook dinner. Toronto and New York City are two hubs of Mad organizing.

As a marginalized student who thinks about the construction of “race” and as an activist in the psychiatric survivor community in Toronto, my interest in “model minorities” and in “suicide” has nothing to do with grievances over my Chinese Canadian community’s cultural expectations of overachievement. Nor am I here to offer a professional self-help guide on depression.

In this two-part series, I share reflections on how stories of self-killing as “suicide” are employed differentially to “read” racialized communities. A part of this discussion involves accepting that suicide is not merely a word used in our everyday language. Suicide indexes an array of medical, legal, and educational texts and procedures to deal with self-killing, such as the fire department’s routine response to a potential “jumper” or a social worker’s obligation to institutionalize a client who expresses the intention to die. These complicated work practices are not arbitrary, but have developed over time with input from all kinds of people.

This conversation also requires that we think about how mental health, education, and the media emphasize particular ways of “spinning” the story of death, while other explanations are rendered irrelevant. I am, in short, asking how certain stories of self-killing function publicly to educate different “ethnic groups” on (1) who they are and (2) how they need to behave.

The narrative vectors of ethnic minority mental illness and suicide are not natural, but patterns in thinking, popularized as official knowledge over decades in the American consciousness by actual people working in disciplines such as sociology and psychology. How is self-killing not only considered unreasonable, but pathological? How is that dysfunction then associated with the generalized traits of a whole group of people -- with culture?

Racial consciousness and stories of self-killing and suffering

To demonstrate how the uptake of self-killing by campuses and the media pivots on assumptions about race, let’s review one predicted death, one death, and one effort to prevent death. These cases speak to generalizations made about Muslim, white, and East Asian subjectivities, respectively.

In March 2010, Slimane Zahaf, a student at UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal), was forcibly arrested after reports of a possible suicide bomber at the downtown Montreal campus. The UQÀM spokesperson said the suspect sought was “of Arabic appearance,” later withdrawing that comment, stating that Zahaf was apprehended on reports of having a long black coat and short hair. Zahaf filed a complaint of racial profiling after four security guards jumped him despite his cooperation.

With the recent ten year anniversary of September 11 inundating headlines, and academic calendars renewing again across Canada and the United States, we must ask how racialized students identified as Arab or Muslim are repeatedly invoked in our imaginations in instances of “extreme” self-killing. How are brown Muslim communities, absent from and marginalized by Asian American politics, differently affected by “suicide” as it characterizes their “culture”?

Here, the specter of death is more closely related to white middle-class security than to addressing the actual survival of Muslim communities. In effect, the story of suicide bombing and the sensationalized juxtaposition of Western secularism against Islamic fundamentalism generate accusations of self-killing that do not come from a public desire for rehabilitation, but for extermination.

Later that year on September 22, 2010, Tyler Clementi, a gay white student on Busch Campus at Rutgers, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, following video surveillance of his sexual encounters by roommate Dharum Ravi and classmate Molly Wei. Following his death, mainstream gay and lesbian organizations lobbied for charges of manslaughter against Wei and Ravi. Jasbir Puar, a faculty member in Women’s Studies at Rutgers University, has written and spoken in-depth about the construction of gay suicide. In June 2011, Puar recounted the suicide of Clementi at a lecture for the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin.

In this instance, Clementi’s self-killing fueled anti-Asian sentiment and reinforced the belief that the “sexual other is always white and the racial other is always straight.” Puar criticizes how assumptions of racialized immigrant homophobia automatically discounted the possibility of queer-on-queer cyberstalking between Clementi, Wei, and Ravi. Clementi’s death sent one thought reverberating across the minds of American progressives: Why isn’t it better? She notes Clementi’s death and Dan Savage’s subsequent “It Gets Better” campaign have worked to generate sympathy for reinstating the privilege of whiteness lost in queer sexuality and to sideline the present-day struggles of queer people of color. To cope, Savage’s campaign imagines a future of white gay normalcy: buy a condo, travel, have a family -- as the form of gay happiness.

Finally, on November 10, 2010, a collective uproar was invoked by an article in the Toronto Star originally titled “Asian students suffering for success.” This article reported on a Greater Toronto Area Asian parents’ conference organized to encourage “East Asian ” parents to consider alternatives to university education for their children, who are collapsing under expectations of academic excellence. This article was published following the controversy of a Maclean’s magazine article, “Too Asian,” that reported on the rise of a demographic imbalance across Canadian campuses, implicitly criticizing “ethnically insular” cliques for monopolizing campus spaces.

The move by educators to urge Asian, namely East Asian, students to enter the arts and trades is not merely a long-term effort to curb student “burnout” in professional university programs and by extension, prevent “model minority suicide”; it is an effort to assimilate anti-social students. And this label of anti-social Asian conceals the reasons behind the “race” to professionalization (pun intended). Rather than adopt the rhetoric of bodily deficit, let’s stop and ask ourselves what anti-social behaviour might represent. As I have argued on Rabble, the pressure to enter professional jobs often originates from a desire to secure respect and economic safety in a hostile social environment where being “Asian” does not measure up to being “Canadian” or “American.” Ironically, poor East Asian youth are probably not interested in self-actualization or discovering themselves in their 20s or 30s. The recommendation of entering trades and services gradually streams these racialized bodies into job markets already heavily served by immigrants through labor market subordination.

Here, the prevention of death by goals of professional success (as a lawyer, doctor, or businessperson) does not bar death by workaholism in general. Interestingly, the concept of the “model minority” works to benefit dominant Western society in two ways: to pathologize some kinds of white-collar work (Asians need to stop being overachievers), while condoning other, less well-paying work as “normal” (Asians need to be normal and “branch out” into other lines of work).

In my next installment, I review how reports on model minority suicide sensationalize death through assumptions about racial equality.

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Alternatives to psychiatry:

Tamasin Knight (2009), Beyond Belief: Alternative Ways of Working with Delusions, Obsessions and Unusual Experiences [Complete PDF available for download]

Rufus May (a list of resources on “hearing voices”, recovery, and alternative approaches)

Critiques of psychiatry:

Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, New York

Paula J. Caplan (September 4, 2011), “Full disclosure needed about psychiatric drugs that shorten life”. In Psychology Today.

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Guest blogger Louise Tam is a graduate student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Ask a Model Minority Suicide is a Hyphen column, appearing every fourth Thursday. Introductory post for the column here. Go here to see all posts in this series.

Comments, questions, or stories can be posted below -- or sent privately to Sam at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.