‘The lives they left behind’


suitcaseExhibit explores the lives of former state hospital patients through the contents of their suitcases

   UTICA — Imagine packing the essence of your entire life in a suitcase. Denise Cavanaugh, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oneida and Madison Counties, posed this question to dignitaries, members of the media and the community recently at the launch of an exhibit entitled, “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” The exhibit shares the 1995 findings from the attic of the closed Finger Lakes Region’s Willard Psychiatric Center. It will be on display from April 30 through May 25 at Utica’s Stanley Center for the Arts.

   “What an amazing find,” said Cavanaugh, “It bears witness to the rich lives of the patients that entered the facility.” More than 400 patient suitcases were found containing personal effects. Many of these suitcase owners never left the institution. The hospital had become home to more than 54,000 people in its 126-year history. 

   The exhibit examines 10 of the suitcases and their contents while comparing information to the hospital’s records. According to the book by Darby Penney with the same title as the exhibit, the project created “a moving — and devastating — group portrait of 20th century psychiatric care.”

   Cavanaugh said looking at the past is important now and in the future by illustrating what lessons have been learned and have yet to be learned. “What brings it home is that we all know someone in this situation who has been affected by mental illness and we need to learn how we can be there for them,” she said.

   A 2007 Newsweek article may have said it best, “The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them. Perhaps they had a predisposition to mental illness. But many were hardworking men and women who seemed to be coping until they suffered setbacks — job losses, physical abuse, diseases, deaths in the family — that apparently triggered a downward spiral.”

   Colleagues had shared the book with Cavanaugh about a year ago. She started to research and “peel back layer after layer of information” and learned that the exhibit is housed in nearby Hamilton, N.Y. Catholic Charities provides several services to the mentally ill, including case management and residential services, she said, “And because of this, it is important for Catholic Charities to help start a dialogue about where we’ve come from in the treatment of people with mental illness. We felt it was vitally important to bring the exhibit here.” Catholic Charities has been a central partner in providing community-based services to adults with mental illness for more than 30 years.

   “We need to ask ourselves some questions,” Cavanaugh said, “Why were these people committed? How were they treated? And most importantly, what are the challenges we face today?” By doing so, she said, patients, their families and caregivers are empowered to move beyond the stigma of mental illness. The exhibit helps to “expand the dialogue about the treatment of people with mental illness,” she said. Then, the private sector, government and agencies like Catholic Charities can forge partnerships to better help the mentally ill, she added.

   When the exhibit was created in 2004 and presented at the New York State Museum, 600,000 people went through the exhibit, illustrating the public interest in the topic. It is expected that the Utica area community will be similarly interested with the city’s own history in psychiatric care. 

   “It is fitting that this project is here in Utica — the home of the first state-run mental hospital,” noted New York State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi.

   The exhibit is on display Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Romano Room at the Stanley Center for the Arts, 261 Genesee St., Utica. Suggested donation is $5 per person and children 12 and under are free.

   On Thursday, May 8, author and human rights activist Darby Penney will offer a lecture and book signing from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Stanley Center for the Arts. Admission is $10 and light refreshments will be served.

   Dyann Nashton is the development director at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica, a freelance writer and a contributing writer to the Sun.


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