Keys to Our Past

To mark Mental Illness Awareness Week, a vital part of Canada’s history is emerging from behind locked doors.

“Keys to Our Past,” a collaboration between Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ontario and Humber’s Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre, is a series of six short films documenting the history of mental health care in Canada.

The film series, which was funded by a Canada 150 grant through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), covers topics ranging from the creation of the asylum system to changes in mental health treatment to the ongoing challenge presented by the stigmatization of mental health.

“Some of the more marginalized voices get left out of the Canada 150 celebrations, so we were happy this was included,” explains Jennifer Bazar, the curator for the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre. “This was an important partnership because part of our mandate [at the Interpretive Centre] is to recognize the history of our grounds, our built environment and our community.”

Both Waypoint and Humber have long connections to mental health treatment in the province. Waypoint started its life as a military base, and was eventually converted from a boys’ reformatory to an “asylum for the insane” in 1904. It now houses Ontario’s only high secure forensic mental health program and offers mental health services for the surrounding community.

The area that is now the east section of Humber’s Lakeshore Campus was a mental health facility – first the Mimico Branch Asylum, eventually the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital – from 1890 until 1979.

“Anyone at the Lakeshore Campus is living with the history of mental health in our province,” says Laura Ball, the knowledge translation and implementation coordinator at Waypoint. “These films will give them a much deeper connection to that space.”

There’s a more personal connection between the two institutions as well. Bazar, who has an academic background in the history of psychology, worked at Waypoint following her PhD, helping them preserve stories and artifacts associated with the facility’s now-demolished Oak Ridge building.

“Jennifer helped us tell the story of the building through artifacts, photos and video,” says Ball. “The SSHRC grant was an ideal way to continue Jennifer’s important work: telling the bigger story of mental health in Canada.”

With the help of the grant, Ball and Bazar hired two psychology students to help with filming and began brainstorming topics, writing scripts and deciding the look and feel of the films.

The result? Six 10-minute films aimed at a general audience who may not have a background in mental health. And while they’ll be useful teaching tools – especially for students who will be working in the mental health sphere – Ball sees their relevance stretching far beyond the classroom.

“One out of five people experience mental illness each year, and that statistic doesn’t cover the people whom mental illness touches in other ways,” says Ball. “This project doesn’t just list names and dates – we’re using history to tell people about where we are today and how we got there. By increasing awareness, we reduce stigma.”

The films will be premiered at the Lakeshore Campus’s G Building on Wednesday, October 4 at 7 pm. For more information, go to