From perplexity to imagination:

    working with madness

by Andrew Phelps


How might social constructionists relate productively to the mental health clients movement? Replacing the old, clinic/medication centered paradigm requires a new practicum for working with madness. Relying on practical experience in client organizing, we argue that the intractable social dimension is accommodation to and normalization of perplexity, rather than appreciation of imagination. An historical episode - Gibbon's account of the execution of Boethius - serves as metaphor for the difficulty clients have when their creativity is recognized as 'for real'. The existence of such real social barriers provides an opening for professionals/support persons to provide the interpretation and social construction necessary for articulating and representing the products of their creativity in mainstream society. It is suggested that the utilization of social constructionist theory can help professionals/support persons form alliances with the mental health clients movement; together they can develop new forms of treatment and activism. This alliance would feature a shift in the understanding and treatment of 'mental illness': Whereas in the past psychiatric treatment and client ideology could be described as habituation to perplexity, a better approach might be described as sensitization to imagination. We envision new kinds of workspaces dedicated to the exercise of imagination.