Mental health history series inspired by discovery of old Maine documents

As Mainers waded through a deadly pandemic, she wondered how many of them felt alone, with fear or grief in their hearts.

KENNEBUNK, Maine — Editor’s note: The video above aired Jan. 20, 2022.

If you walk past the exhibits at the Brick Store Museum, you may reach a room that guards the history of Kennebunk.

Documents, charts, and family photos fill plain gray boxes stacked high on shelves surrounding the room.

Cynthia Walker is the keeper of that history, and she had an idea last year.

“I came upon a [diary] from a woman who had just lost her son,” Walker, the museum’s executive director, said. “She was describing her grief in it. And it really just hit home for me.”

As Mainers waded through a deadly pandemic, Walker wondered how many of them felt alone, with fear or grief in their hearts. 

In her archive, she read through diaries and letters, some a century-and-a-half old, and many full of concern over war and disease. 

Inspired by what she read, Walker decided to reach out to work with the Maine Humanities Council, which launched a series covering mental health throughout history. This spring, they’re bringing it back for free.

Lacey Sparks, an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Maine, is leading this year’s discussions.

“When I’m reading these documents, so much of them are descriptions of people’s pain or their experiences of their lives,” she explained. “It feels like one of the most important things for me to do is to just listen and to bear witness — to share that in a way that is respectful.”

The Mainers who wrote down their private words may have assumed their stories would die with them, but Sparks and Walker instead hope they can serve remind others they are not alone.

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By Betty C. Giordano

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