Mental Health Records: An Introduction for Researchers
Posted March 18, 2011
Topics: GenealogyDaily LifeArchives & LibraryMuseum Collections

Black and white oversize photograph of the Columbus State Hospital for the Insane, located on West Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1877.

From Ohio Memory

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.

Ohio's Behavioral 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. The 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 persons 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 laws access requirements can obtain information concerning the patient from the restricted records.

Photographic postcard showing the Main Administration building of the Athens Asylum, then known as the State Hospital, with the fountain in front. 1910. From Ohio Memory

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. 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 items contents. If access to the collection is affected under ORC 5122.31, the items description will indicate a restriction and the holdings status will be to ask at the 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.

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 hospitals care. If a patients 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 patients 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. 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 courts 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, by telephone (614-297-2510) or by e-mail ([email protected]).

Print showing the buildings and grounds of Longview State Hospital, located in Cincinnati, Ohio. From Ohio Memory

Annual Report of the Longview State Hospital, 1874

Annual Report of the Longview State Hospital, 1874. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

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