Mental Health Records: An Introduction for Researchers

The historical record documents Ohio’s concern for public welfare and the institutions that provide support for those who are in need of assistance.  When searching for the record of an individual’s care in Ohio’s institutional system, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the services available at the time.  It is not unusual for family members to have been secretive about a hospitalization for mental illness.  As a result, researchers may learn of a hospitalization based on memories of visiting a relative, discovering a publicly available list of patients, or finding notations that refer to a commitment in personal documents.Athens Hospital

Ohio’s Behavorial Healthcare Institutions

In 1823 Ohio first contracted with the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum in Cincinnati to give care to those who were identified as having a mental illness.  This contractual relationship was continued until 1838 when the first fully state funded and operated behavioral healthcare hospital for the mentally ill opened in Columbus.  The name of this institution followed the politically correct terminology of the time: Ohio Lunatic Asylum.  The Ohio General Assembly appropriated the funding to build additional regional hospitals throughout the state as the number of persons who were admitted to the Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus increased during the nineteenth century.  Both the Newburgh Asylum (near Cleveland) and the Dayton Asylum opened in 1855.  The Longview Asylum at Cincinnati opened in 1860.  The Athens Asylum opened in 1874.  The Toledo Asylum opened in 1888.  The Massillon Asylum opened in 1898. During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the opening and closing of behavioral healthcare facilities continued to occur based on the needs and practices of the time.

Longview Hospital near CincinnatiThe state has transferred record collections from the hospitals to the custody of the Ohio State Archives at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus.  Records from the Athens State Hospital are also available at the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Ohio University. Any collection that identifies an individual by name is restricted from public review because it is a record of the person’s health.  Ohio Revised Code Section 5122.31 specifically outlines who may access records that name a patient.  Information from the historical records at the Ohio Historical Center is accessible to the former patient if living or the closest living relative of a deceased patient.  A researcher who meets the law’s access requirements can obtain information concerning the patient from the restricted records.

How to Find Records

When the Ohio Department of Mental Health began transferring the patient record collections to the Ohio State Archives, the institutions were referred to as State Hospitals.  The term asylum had fallen out of favor and the current terminology of Behavioral Healthcare Organization had not yet been introduced.  The best way to find out what each of the patient record collections contains is to review our Online Collection Catalog (link to http://www.ohiohistory.org/occ/menu.htm).  Access to State Archives holdings is available by choosing the “Archives/Library Collections” search option.  Do a “Keyword Author” search for the name of the hospital (example: Longview State Hospital).  Click on the bold red title of an item listed in the search results to review a description of the item’s contents.  If access to the collection is affected under ORC 5122.31, the item’s description will indicate a restriction and the holdings status will be “ask at desk.”

Unrestricted Records

Not all state hospital collections are restricted from public access.  If patients are not identified by name, there is no reason to prohibit review.  Any researcher can use annual reports, photograph collections, departmental newsletters, cemetery lists, maps, etc. to learn about the environment of a hospital during a particular time.Annual Report of the Longview State Hospital, 1874

Where Else Can I Find Information?

Ohio’s behavioral healthcare hospitals are only required to maintain patient records for 10 years after a patient has been discharged from the hospital’s care.  If a patient’s records were not archived with the Ohio Historical Society, they may have been destroyed.  Even so, a researcher may wish to contact the hospital, if it is still in operation, to ask if they hold any records from the time frame of a patient’s hospitalization.

The Ohio Department of Mental Health (ODMH) is also a resource for information about patients.  ODMH does not hold individual case files, but they may be able to provide brief information concerning a patient (for example, admission and discharge dates).  Further information about the availability of patient information should be requested from ODMH (link to http://www.mh.state.oh.us/who-we-are/contact-us.shtml).

Researchers may also wish to ask the probate court of the county where the patient was living before he/she was admitted to the hospital if a commitment hearing case file is available.  Each county’s probate judge decides whether or not to grant access to the county’s behavioral healthcare records.  Please note that not all patients were admitted as a result of a court hearing.  Patients could request admission for themselves or a family member could request permission to have a relative admitted without the court’s intersession into the process.  In either of these two types of admissions (i.e. by the individual or a direct relation of the individual), the hospital usually required a private practice doctor to supply a letter that confirmed a mental health diagnosis.

Contact Us

Collections Services staff members at the Ohio Historical Center are happy to assist researchers with the process of accessing information related to Ohio’s institutional care system.  You can speak with staff in person during our regular business hours (link to http://www.ohiohistory.org/resource/archlib/use.html), by telephone (614-297-2510) or by e-mail (reference@ohiohistory.org).

About these ads
This entry was posted in Controversy Exhibition, Research, Research Tips, Research Tools, State Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Mental Health Records: An Introduction for Researchers

  1. Scott Phillips says:

    These records can be very helpful and it is great you are explaining them. I was ‘lucky’ that my ancestor was incarcerated first, then went to Lima State and changed his name after due to the incredible stigma. However, the records were a very valuable addition to my family history. Thank you!

  2. Jane Weber says:

    There are also state hospital cemetery reclamation projects throughout the state, that can be contacted through local NAMIs. The Toledo State Hospital Cemetery Reclamation Project has a web site that can be accessed at http://www.toledostatehospitalcemetery.org, and it includes a listing of the 1,994 persons buried in the two Toledo State Hospital Cemeteries.

  3. Colin B. says:

    My mother’s great aunts were part of the staff soometime in the 1900’s (I believe). How would I go about finding them?

  4. Kathryn McCullough says:

    I have just discovered our single, mentally unbalanced great-uncles together in Longview, Cincinnati, in the 1940 census. They never married and are both deceased (1957 and 1967), as are their parents (1934 and 1944). Is there any way for our family researchers to obtain the individual records? Thank you for any assistance!

  5. I am so grateful for finding this blog! I submitted an email and hopefully will find out more about my Grandma! Thanks!!!!!

  6. Tom O'Grady says:

    Hello,

    I am seeking information about a Henry E. Meyer born 1837, died 1881. He was an architect in Cleveland and designed buildings around the state of Ohio. In the 1880 census he was living at the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum. He died at the age of 44 in 1881. Any information that can be obtained would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Tom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s