Hartford Connecticut Museum Curates Unique and Universal Exhibit on Mental Health Past and Present

The first thing you see when you walk into the mental health exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford is 18th Century artist Faith Trumbull Huntington who died by suicide. 

“Through looking through letters in our collection, we gleaned that her family had tried to help her,” said Ben Gammell, director of exhibitions at the museum. 

Common Struggle, Individual Experience: An Exhibition about Mental Health Presented by Hartford Healthcare Institute of Living will show now until October 15, 2022. 

Shortly into the exhibit you will learn about the personal stories of military and law enforcement through the use of video interviews. Also included are information about mental health of soldiers during the Civil War. As the cop said in his video, “We are the first ones you call when you need help, but we are not inclined to ask for help for ourselves.” 

Erasing the discrimination that surrounds mental health in our society is what this exhibit hopes to achieve. Through focus groups and reaching out to mental health agencies, the museum found people with lived experience to interview on camera. You will find these stories interspersed throughout the exhibit. 

I reached out to Kathy Flaherty executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, who was part of the initial focus groups and was interviewed on camera for the exhibit. CLRP is a non-profit organization fighting for the legal rights of people with mental illness.

“I was pleased to participate in focus groups while the exhibit was being planned and to film video responses to several thought-provoking questions. The Keep the Promise Coalition posters were in storage at CLRP’s office [Connecticut Legal Rights Project]; I was thrilled we were able to loan them to the museum for display as part of this exhibit, said Flaherty. 

“I hope this exhibit will get more people to think about where we’ve been, and more importantly, where we are going in terms of what “mental health” means in Connecticut. I hope it causes people to think deeply about how we can best support people in emotional distress and the systemic changes we must continue to demand.”

Because of its 120th Anniversary in 2022, there is a lot of information about the Institute of Living’s history formerly the Hartford Retreat for the Insane. The IOL is now a part of Hartford Healthcare in Hartford, Connecticut.

Through use of diverse voices from the past and present, they discuss the impact poverty and racism have on mental health and access to care. For black and indigenous cultures there is extra discrimination the way society looks at someone for having a chemical imbalance in their brain. 

Some of the voices included talked about the lack of insurance coverage and access to treatment without going bankrupt. They included a small section on mental health public policy and legislation. They even brought in voices from the deaf community talking about finding a therapist who used sign language. These was even a section on mindfulness practices in mental health treatment. 

At the end of the exhibit, there were mental health crisis numbers and pamphlets for people to take and share with their friends. 

“This exhibit helps destigmatize mental health and normalize the conversation,” said Gammell. “It talks about how people past and present struggled with mental health. It’s a universal issue throughout the ages.”

The curators dug deep through diaries and letters in the museum’s collection to find this universal truth within the texts of the past.

“It’s not a chronological exhibit. We’ve weaved voices from the past with those from the present to allow you to connect with people from 200 years ago,” said Gammell.

Author and Advocate Julia Tannenbaum, who I have interviewed for this blog, was included in the exhibit as well as her fictional trilogy the Changing Ways series were displayed. 

“I’m beyond flattered to have my young adult book trilogy, The Changing Ways Series, featured in Common Struggle, Individual Experience. My goal with writing my books and sharing my personal story of surviving anorexia was to inspire hope in those who are struggling with mental illness that recovery is possible, and that it gets so much better. Additionally, there needs to be more public awareness of mental illness and support for those who suffer, and I believe CHS’s incredible exhibit will move the needle forward on both. I’m so glad that I can be a part of this much-needed systematic change,” said Tannenbaum. 

A live storytelling event presented by writer and storyteller Matthew Dicks on Zoom was dedicated to Mental Health honoring the exhibit which happened last Saturday and was sponsored by the Connecticut Historical Society. These stories augmented the exhibit by sharing even more personal stories. 

They will also be hosting related programs throughout the year. Our next book talk scheduled is here:

A Paramedic’s Dispatches From the Front Line of the Opioid Epidemic – Connecticut Historical SocietyJoin us for a book talk with Hartford paramedic Peter Canning, author of Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches From the Front Line of the Opioid Epidemic.. In April 2021, Canning released Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches From the Front Line of the Opioid Epidemic.A paramedic on the streets of Hartford for over 25 years, Canning has seen the impact of prescription painkillers …chs.org

If you go to the museum’s web site, you can take a virtual tour of the exhibit, find out hours of operation, price of admission, and when live tours are scheduled for this exhibit. The site is www.chs.org

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