Film Review: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
By Greg Macdougall
Set in the time of mass de-institutionalization of psychiatric patients, the Mental Patients Association (MPA) emerged in Vancouver at the start of the 1970s. This 36-minute documentary film, produced in 2013 by History of Madness Productions, captures the MPA experience and its impact through interviews with former members, supplemented with animated illustration and archival footage
The tone is set when an interviewee articulates MPA’s philosophy: “We’re not going to let ourselves … feel internally like there’s something wrong with us, and we’re not going to let our voices be shut down – we’re going to change the way things are done. We’re going to change how people look at a psychiatric patient.”
The MPA was a radical political group recognized as a world leader at the time. Run by and for mental patients, it had a horizontal and democratic structure. Rather than a president, MPA had coordinators. Staff were elected by, and from, the membership every six months; if you weren’t doing a good job, you simply wouldn’t be rehired.
Members’ sense of participation and ownership in the organization gave them a sense of community, belonging and empowerment, countering previous feelings of loss, anger and/or hopelessness. The MPA was formed after weekend suicides in a professionally-run, weekday-only support group inspired mental patients to get together and organize to support each other. Even today, isolation affects many with mental health problems – so it’s powerful to hear the story of MPA’s success in addressing this challenge and expanding possibilities some 40 years ago.
Radical mental health history is often overlooked, even by those currently engaged in the issues involved. The film makes comparisons between our movement and the women’s and gay rights movements of the time. MPA members felt they were doing something parallel to, and in unison with, these movements, but saw that their movement was ultimately far less successful. Although they were able to build a community of people who could and did support each other, they couldn’t achieve the same level of lasting, concrete change as other struggles.
The MPA still exists in Vancouver, though in a very different form. Its name was later changed to “Motivation, Power and Achievement.” More recently, and interestingly, it has renamed itself “MPA Society,” and its new logo is accompanied by the slogan “Empowerment in Mental Health Since 1971.” As of early 2013, MPA had 250 employees and an annual budget of $15 million.
The Inmates Are Running The Asylum explains how the organization became bureaucratized through government influence. Government funding was instrumental in MPA’s early success, but as the group grew in size its funding came to have “accountability” strings attached. As a result, it lost its democratic and horizontal nature. As one interviewee states, “1977 was a bad year.”
Another describes the change from “We will do this together,” to “What are you going to do for me?” This shift points to the greater context of the mental health field being predominantly service oriented and focused on individuals, rather than client-led and collective in nature.
Some interviewees are proud to have helped establish MPA’s housing and support services, noting that MPA still provides such services, which continue to have great value to its clients. However, the sense of loss of political consciousness and action is palpable, whether this loss is seen as a betrayal of MPA’s original principles or as an inevitable consequence of changing times.
The Inmates Are Running the Asylum vividly conveys the sense of what it was like to be a part of the MPA’s early collective political action and community, and the vibrancy of those who came together to support each other and work for change. The lasting impact of their involvement is readily evident, and inspiring to see.
For more on the film and/or to watch it online, visit the website www.historyofmadness.ca/the-inmates-are-running-the-asylum
WATCH THE FULL FILM (36min):
This review was originally published in the newsletter of the West Coast Mental Health Network: www.wcmhn.org
About the reviewer: Greg Macdougall is engaged in education, community organizing and interdependent media making work based in Ottawa, unceded Algonquin territory. His website is EquitableEducation.ca
He identifies as Mad and/or disAbled, and wrote a cover article this past year for the Dominion magazine entitled Call Us Crazy: Mad movements organize against ableism, mentalism and more