Kennedy Williams was in high school when she realized she needed help. She was still managing — mostly — to participate in her many clubs and on the Glastonbury cheer team and maintain her A average, but something was seriously off.
“I was feeling miserable the entire time,” she says. “I would come home and sleep all afternoon until practice. I was not doing my homework, walking through school and going through the motions. I had a numb feeling all the time.”
After a few months of feeling increasingly worse, Kennedy asked her mother, Trina, for help. “When my daughter reached out and said I’ve got this [problem], I said, ‘We need to get help.’ I’m aware that this is in my family,” she says, noting one of her sisters has debilitating anxiety and depression and that one of Kennedy’s uncles had depression and died by suicide. “I have seen it up close so I knew we had to work on it.”
Because Kennedy lives in Glastonbury, a town where the school system provides free counseling to any student under the age of 18, getting help was relatively easy. Her guidance counselor set up the meetings with the therapist and she just walked across the street during her school day.
That is anything but the norm in mental health care, and highlighting that access issue as well as recognizing Connecticut’s vital role in mental health care in the U.S. is one reason Ben Gammell, director of exhibitions at the Connecticut Historical Society, organized Common Struggle, Individual Experience: An Exhibition About Mental Health. It opens Nov. 12 and runs through Oct. 15, 2022.
The 200th anniversary of Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living in Hartford in 2022 was the initial spark for the exhibition, Gammell says. “We decided to go broader than just the IOL,” he says, “and step back and look at mental health more broadly. There are a lot of Connecticut milestones in mental health and we wanted to hear from people today and get their perspective.”
Gammell created focus groups of caregivers, mental health professionals and those with lived experience to share their suggestions. The result is an exhibition that examines mental health history but also, and perhaps more importantly to Gammell, highlights the stories of people living with mental health issues today. In all, 20 people shared their stories for videos that play a prominent part in the display.
Connecticut’s role in shaping mental health care in this country is not insignificant. The IOL, initially known as the Hartford Retreat for the Insane, helped promote the relatively unique idea that those with mental health issues should be treated with compassion and respect. Founder Eli Todd believed many mental conditions were curable. “This was not the norm at the time,” Gammell says. “The Hartford Retreat was the first one to do this. It started in Connecticut and spread from there.”
Another mental health reformer, Clifford Beers, started his crusade after his less-than-positive patient experiences at both the IOL and Connecticut Valley Hospital. He wrote a book, A Mind That Found Itself, and helped form the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which ultimately morphed into Mental Health America and Mental Health Connecticut. He also created the first outpatient mental health clinic in the country in New Haven in 1913.
From the 18th-century family letters of Faith Huntington, a daughter of Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull who ultimately died by suicide, to a Colchester Rubber Factory worker in the 1800s to Kennedy today, the exhibition aims to personalize mental health. “We’re hoping people will see themselves in some of the stories or a loved one in the stories and then feel more comfortable to talk about their own experiences with someone else and feel more empowered to reach out for help if they need it,” Gammell says.
“Seeing people share their stories from the past and today is a powerful way of connecting history,” he continues, noting that CHS is planning additional speakers and panel discussions throughout the exhibition’s tenure. “We want people to see that mental health is not a new thing. The more people share their stories, the less scary it is.”
Helping people better understand mental health is one reason Kennedy decided to participate in the exhibition. A junior at Boston University studying biological anthropology, she still struggles with anxiety and depression. But with a supportive family and friends and access to medical care, she knows she is one of the lucky few. “Because I’ve been so fortunate with a support system and a [supportive] school system, I just want to show if we get on top of all that and all on the same page,” she says, “mental illness can be more manageable and people can live healthy, successful lives.”
“My biggest hope is that people who are suffering don’t have to suffer in silence and can seek help. And that it saves lives,” Trina adds. “I want people to get the hope they need and not progress to a dark place.”
Update: This article was updated on Oct. 26, 2021, to correct the parentage of Faith Huntington.
Common Struggle, Individual Experience: An Exhibition About Mental Health
Connecticut Historical Society
1 Elizabeth St., Hartford
On display Nov. 12, 2021–Oct. 15, 2022
Tickets: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $8 students and children