Patient newspapers like The Reversing Falls Review in New Brunswick and The Leader in BC were a feature of the late institutional period, but authentic survivor culture could not happen in the large residential facilities. Art was an immediate outcome of the shift to community-based mental health. Cultural expression had the potential to be healing for those reclaiming their own experience through art, but from the start it clearly also had broader political implications. Mad artists of all kinds raised social consciousness about the effects of the asylum-era and the continued shortcomings of the mental health system. Psychiatric survivors allied themselves with feminist movements, queer movements, anti-racist movements and others, challenging dominant structures and mainstream values.
Recognizing the dominance of professional voices in public discourse about psychiatric issues, psychiatric survivors began to reclaim their own narratives, positioning themselves as “experts” on mental health. Rather than living in shame and secrecy, as survivors were often encouraged to do, they spoke out, made art, and created community. This was a powerful process. Sheila Gilhooly, one of the first visual artists in Canada to be “out” about her mental health history declared, “When you flaunt something, nobody can use it against you.” In the 1970s and 1980s, a cluster of mad newspapers and magazines – In a Nutshell, Phoenix Rising and Our Voice/Notre Voix – emerged.
Soon, there were also books to tell the tales, published by small alternative presses willing to push the edges on important issues. Art exhibits, film screenings, and theatre projects, among other cultural expressions, added new dimension to what had been expressed previously on paper.
This multi-part exhibit just scratches the surface of this history, sharing six of the myriad cultural projects that emerged across the country from the 1970s into the millennium. The individual exhibits were researched and written by people working in different parts of the country.