May 30, 2012

Group wants permanent memorial for AMHI deceased

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A disturbing memory has haunted Karen Evans since she was a patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute in the early 1960s.

click image to enlarge

Peter Driscoll, executive director of Amistad, stands in front of the former AMHI building, which now stands empty in Augusta. A Portland-based nonprofit group that serves the mentally ill, Amistad has launched a fundraising effort to build a permanent memorial to those who died at AMHI but whose burial sites are unknown.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by John Ewing

Evans was 17 when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for about a year. During her stay, a girl she knew only as Margaret confided that she was contemplating suicide.

Evans warned the hospital staff. The next day, she discovered Margaret in her room, her head forced between the bars on the window. The window was shattered. Blood was everywhere.

"They took her away and I never found out what happened to her," said Evans, now 65. "It happened more than once while I was there, but she affected me the most. It felt to me that people disappeared overnight. That life could be dismissed so easily."

Nearly 50 years later, the tragic memory of Margaret fuels Evans' desire to establish a permanent memorial to the 11,647 people who died at AMHI during its 165-year history. The hospital, which closed in 2004, kept no apparent records of where deceased patients were buried, other than a hand-scrawled map of a few graves in a nearby cemetery.

Evans and other participants in the AMHI Cemetery Project, which culled the names of the dead from dusty ledgers and boxes of files, believe that some of the lost souls of AMHI were buried in unmarked graves somewhere on the hospital's 800-acre campus on the Kennebec River.

There are more than 300,000 of these forgotten dead at active and former state psychiatric hospitals across the country, reflecting a time not so long ago when people with mental illness were viewed as society's castoffs.

The AMHI Cemetery Project has launched a campaign to raise at least $50,000 to design and install a memorial on the AMHI campus. The group's effort is part of a national movement to restore dignity to those who died without recognition in the past and foster compassion for the one in five American adults who have some form of mental illness today.

In March, the memorial project received a $10,000 lead donation from the Elsie and William Viles Foundation, headed by 97-year-old philanthropist Elsie Viles of Augusta.

Viles said she was moved to make a contribution after learning about the disregard that was shown to fellow human beings just down the road from her home.

"It's one of those things that strikes you," Viles said recently. "It's so sad that it happened, even though it was a long time ago. I think it's wonderful that this group has organized an effort to remember people the way they should be remembered."

'Passed away in the night'

The AMHI Cemetery Project started 12 years ago, prompted by Evans and led by Amistad, an agency in Portland that serves people with mental illness.

Evans had attended a mental health conference in Texas, where she learned about the prevalence of unmarked graves at U.S. psychiatric hospitals and ongoing efforts to recognize the forgotten dead in other states.

When an initial search of AMHI's records found no burial record, the group got special permission from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to search hospital records dating back to 1840, when AMHI was founded as the Maine Insane Hospital. As the hospital campus expanded, buildings were added and common language evolved, the name was changed to Maine State Hospital and later, AMHI.

Researchers found 11,647 names of patients who died on the premises. In the early days, hospital staff would simply note in a daily journal that a certain patient had "passed away in the night." Of the estimated 45,000 people who were admitted to AMHI from 1840 to 2004, nearly one-quarter died at the hospital, according to an AMHI Cemetery Project report.

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