Lesson Plans

MPA: The Inmates’ Utopia Unit

Green Chinese takeaway boxTakeaways

  • Understand the power of activism in mental health communities
  • Appreciate the empowering attributes of democratic structure and shared accountability in grassroots mental health groups and projects
  • Recognize that service users often know what they need and can play an active role in the provision of appropriate services
  • Appreciate the contemporary relevance of history

Three green gears working togetherArtefacts: 

The main artefact for this unit is The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, a 36-minute grassroots documentary about Canada’s first patient-led organization.  An additional artefact is Democracy is a Very Radical Idea, a chapter about making the film by the man who began the MPA in 1971 and the historian who produced the documentary 40 years later.

Green kitchen weigh scaleEvaluating the Artefacts

Green hand-held magnifying glassLearning Lens

graphic with "Mental Patients Association" on top, "Founded 1971" on bottom and graphic of clenched fist with "free" written on it and scars on wrist
MPA logo from the masthead of their newspaper, In A Nutshell

A remarkable utopian experiment, Vancouver’s MPA (Mental Patients Association) was formed in 1971 as an activist response to deinstitutionalization and tragic gaps in community mental health. Inverting traditional mental health hierarchies, the group put former patients and sympathetic lay supporters in charge. MPA provided homes, work, and a sense of belonging and self-determination to ex-patients.  It never relied on mental health professionals.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Stories from MPA is a 36-minute historical documentary about this pioneering 1970s grassroots mental health organization, also available on DVD in Canadian university and college libraries.  Animation, archival footage and videotaped interviews bring to life the pioneering MPA and explain the way in which Canada’s first service user-led group functioned.  The film is as an accessible and entertaining message about service user involvement in the provision of services, the importance of activism and advocacy, and a model of successful peer support. It is a good basis for thoughtful discussion on these topics.

Students can also explore the innovative way in which the film was made. The MPA Founders took key roles in determining content and marketing while the academics involved worked to access the resources necessary to finish the project. In this fashion making the documentary mirrored the empowering structure of the early MPA itself.

Three green gears working together within a picture frameArtefacts in Context

As The Inmates documentary depicts, MPA was founded in early 1971, a unique and highly successful user-led experiment in grassroots mental health activism and advocacy.  MPA was linked to and informed by other social movements of the era, i.e. feminist and gay rights, and its members understood mental patients as an oppressed social group.  The MPA newspaper, In A Nutshell, was a colourful, informative and opinionated commentary on mental health and a forum for art, humour and poetry.

The first group of its kind in Canada, MPA soon connected with other nascent psychiatric survivor organizations coming together in the United States and Britain.  New York service users came together as the Mental Patients Liberation Project in the same year that MPA was founded.  Patients at London’s Paddington Day Hospital set up a Mental Patients Union two years later. MPA’s Lanny Beckman published in the journal Radical Therapist, an alternative mental health journal with a critical perspective on psychiatry that put out 12 issues between 1970 and 1972.  The 1970s were good times for psychiatric survivor activism.  In 1981 movement historian Mel Starkman, writing for Phoenix Rising, reported on survivor initiatives in Kansas, California, New York, Holland, France, Italy, Belgium and West Germany.