Meanings of Madness

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PLUS recently attended the ‘Meanings of Madness’ conference in Cork, Ireland.


University College Cork, November 2013

The purpose of this conference organised by the Catherine MCauley School of Nursing and Midwifery was to find better ways of helping people who experience madness – ‘to find creative approaches to engaging and responding to madness’.  Throughout the two days I listened to some excellent speakers and participated in several very worthwhile workshops:  One of the keynote speakers Doug Ross presenting ‘Transformational Crisis’ (how difficult states of mind can be a vehicle for transformation and self- discovery) said he preferred to think in terms of himself being in full rapture with the world rather than in recovery. He talked about ‘assaults on the self’ and listed loss, violence, bullying, failing exams all happening at once as ‘multiple hits’. He asked how do we find the safe places and spoke about the healing power of communities. His talk was both hard hitting and poignant at the same time. He ended with a beautiful poem by Canadian poet Alden Nowlen which touched many of us lucky enough to be there.

The first workshop I took part in, facilitated by Liam MacGabhann a lecturer at Dublin City University and community activist, illustrated Open Dialogue (Seikkula et al 2006). It provided a glimpse into how open dialogue as a way of relating within madness is not so out of reach as some may think. The Open Dialogue approach is both a philosophical/theoretical approach to people experiencing a mental health crisis and their families/networks, and a system of care, developed in Western Lapland in Finland over the last 25-30 years  (

 In another  workshop ‘Madness as Defined by Einstein’ Liz Brosnan  presented a novel framework, Gaventa’s (2006) power cube to examine the politics of service-user involvement.  This was an excellent learning experience. I quickly realised the barriers to authentic involvement were the same in Ireland. I scribbled lots of notes and absorbed new ways PLUS could improve service user involvement in P&K.

 It came as no surprise to me that the person’s story and the power behind it featured regularly throughout the conference –  in fact I heard many people’s stories whilst I was in Ireland – not only at the conference. I spoke with taxi drivers, hotel staff, and tourists who also had inspiring life stories, some of overcoming adversity. My listening skills were well polished up during the trip.

Particularly memorable was one elderly Irish lady campaigner, a very powerful speaker when sharing what happened to her almost thirty years ago in the Irish psychiatric system. Her story was met with disbelief and shock, especially by the young students listening closely.  Unsurprising to me I sensed a great need for people to say what happened to them and that’s what was great about the conference – it offered a safe place to do that.

The whole experience  left an imprint on me. It increased my knowledge and understanding, practically providing resources and new approaches to help people who experience madness. Most valuable of all was the shared humanity and inspiration that I gained personally. I am extremely grateful at being able to attend this conference.

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