Sanism, ‘Mental Health’, and Social Work/Education: A Review and Call to Action


  • Jennifer M. Poole Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Tania Jivraj Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Araxi Arslanian Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Kristen Bellows Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Sheila Chiasson Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Husnia Hakimy Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Jessica Pasini Ryerson University, Toronto
  • Jenna Reid York University, Toronto



mental health, sanism, Mad studies, oppression, rights, social work, social work education


Sanism is a devastating form of oppression, often leading to negative stereotyping or arguments that individuals with ‘mental health’ histories are not fit to study social work. However, the term sanism is rarely used, understood, or interrogated in the social work academy, even in anti-oppressive spaces. Indeed, social work has been so loyal to the medical model that sanist aggressions, such as pathologizing, labelling, exclusion, and dismissal have become a ‘normal’ part of professional practice and education. We query the moral integrity of a profession that at its foundational core could play a role in such a discriminatory tactic as sanism. We wonder what the effect of this has been on social work and its education. We ask, who has been excluded, what has been silenced or denied because of the privileging of medical conceptualizations of madness, and how can we work toward anti-sanist social work today? In this paper we provide an overview of sanism. We offer a more critical review of the literature on ‘mental health’ and social work. We report on our anti-sanist participatory pilot research, and aligned with current Canadian rights work, we call for action with respect to how social workers theorize, research, and respond to madness now.

Author Biography

Jennifer M. Poole, Ryerson University, Toronto

With a background in community work and mental/health, Jennifer’s interdisciplinary research program is centred on madness, ‘health’, and ‘mental health’, taking up philosophical, practice and policy concerns. Current projects focus on the experiences of Mad people in post secondary education, sanism, critical approaches to grief, death and transplantation. Author of Behind the Rhetoric: Mental Health Recovery in Ontario, she is particularly interested in Foucauldian notions of discourse/critical discourse analysis, theorizing the body as well as critical social work practice/pedagogy, critical disability, community based research and anti-oppressive practice(s). She hails from Montreal, loves her students and rarely says no to chocolate.