On the 15th October 2014, members from CAPS advocacy, NHS Lothian Mental Health and Wellbeing Team, academics, activists and students from Edinburgh, Stirling and Queen Margaret Universities gathered to watch Dr Megan Davies’ film, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, followed by a panel discussion.

The film’s subject was Vancouver’s MPA – or Mental Patients Association. In the early 1970s after Canada’s deinstitutionalism, the MPA through their utopian approach dramatically radicalised how mental health care should be provided. It was a revolutionary moment, and one that had great success. Their strength of force paralleled the women’s liberation and gay rights movement at the time, and the MPA became a dynamic organisation based on participatory democracy, and set to invert traditional mental health system hierarchies: The inmates were, in fact – running the asylum.

Megan Davies with a number of other producers sought to find and interview original members of the MPA and use their narratives as part of a project of deinstitutionalisation and a history of madness in Canada. Megan’s beautiful film doesn’t aim to just repeat the psychological experience, rather, she wanted to use the voices of those she encountered to interpret history – “it’s YOUR history” she would say to the founding members. “I want to hear your story,” she repeated to them. Indeed, the members also decided as a group what aspects they wanted to be in the film, an analogous movement of the MPA’s democratic status – “we really were a horizontal group, there were no vertical hierarchies” one member says in the film.

The power of friendship is crucial to the MPA and one that is shown in the charming narratives and footage of life with the MPA. As one resident says, “it’s a strong glue…it’s the glue of friendship and community”. Many of them tell how they felt alone and isolated, “I would just wander aimlessly”, but at the MPA’s Club House, they had something – something together. There were woodwork workshops, ping-pong tables, painting, music, creative workshops – whatever the residents wanted to do – they did. 

“There were no rules, no alcohol, no violence”. It was a community. The film’s mastery also comes from the way in which it shows how “it wasn’t all roses”. The MPA often had suicides, fires and attempts of self-harm from its residents, thus, one member explains how there were no locks on the bathroom doors. When moments of fear such as these occurred though, its members rallied round and “showed that we can have a rich life and that we’re not living alone”. As one member eloquently says, “I had a chance to be part of something. MPA gave me hope”. 

The film was followed by a fascinating panel debate over the helpfulness of service-user autonomy, care in the community, health and safety and the power of narrative voice. 

Megan at the end sums it up perfectly: “The film underscores the power of story, community and pushing boundaries of what we think is possible. The MPA did that and in the world of mental health we really have to do that too”.

It’s true; her film is a powerful one – it is power coming from the centrality of the founding members. It is a power of solidarity, care, friendship, hope and togetherness.  Ultimately, this power should not be ignored – it is the power of hope.

Written by Constance Barter