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Program will explore Kansas Mennonites’ impact on U.S. mental-health care

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A program of alternative service that came about because of World War II also led to significant changes in mental-health care in the United States.

July 19, Kauffman Museum at Bethel College will host “From Resisters to Reformers: How Kansas Mennonites Changed Mental Health Care,” a presentation and discussion by Aaron Barnhart.

The program, at 3 p.m. in the museum auditorium, is made possible by the Kansas Humanities Council and is a part of Kauffman Museum’s regular Sunday- Afternoon-at-the-Museum series. It is free and open to the public.

Few people in the United States were as unprepared for World War I as Kansas Mennonites. Predominantly farmers, they were opposed to military service for religious reasons and were largely of German descent, causing them to come under suspicion.

Later, with World War II looming, the Mennonites, Quakers and the Church of the Brethren proposed a system of alternative service called Civilian Public Service (CPS).

Through CPS, many conscientious objectors were assigned to mental-health facilities. Aaron Barnhart’s presentation examines how CPS workers helped expose intolerable conditions at these institutions, leading to postwar reforms and a transformation of psychiatric care.

Barnhart, former TV and movie critic for the Kansas City Star, is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the co-author, with Diane Eickhoff, of The Big Divide: A Travel Guide to Historic and Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region (Quindaro Press, 2013, updated 2015). His research interests are in history, civil society and rural America.

“This talk is not just for Mennonites,” Barnhart said, “but for anyone interested in the issues of personal conscience versus authority to the state, which is a theme as old as human history.

“I like to end my talk by asking if mandatory service might be an idea whose time has come again. Now there’s a lively discussion!”

“How Kansas Mennonites Changed Mental Health Care” is part of the Kansas Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau, featuring presentations and discussions that examine shared human experience – innovations, culture, heritage and conflicts.

Regular Kauffman Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, and 1:30–4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6–16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website or Facebook page.

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