Some synonyms for the word “asylum” include “refuge” or “haven.”
Tom O’Grady will not use the name “The Ridges” when he references the menagerie of buildings at the site of the former Athens Mental Health Center. He just calls it the asylum.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that the word asylum should not have stigma attached to it, because ‘asylum’ means safety, refuge, protection,” O’Grady said in an interview last fall. “People still come to America every day seeking asylum.”
As the director of development and outreach at the Southeast Ohio History Center and a former volunteer at the Athens Mental Health Center, he has other hesitations. He said he believes Ohio University assigned that name to the deinstitutionalized and shuttered hospital in an effort to extinguish its history of mental health treatment — the antithesis of what the historical society aims to do.
“The heritage of ‘The Ridges’ is the political tug-of-war between the university and the community over ownership and the future of the buildings,” he said.
But whatever you choose to refer to it as, the sprawling campus — adorned with bricks and canopied by a forest of trees, 100 years rich with stories of yesterday — serves as a reminder of the ever changing practices and procedures in treating individuals living with mental illnesses.
Volunteer coordinator George Eberts became a staff member at the Athens Mental Health Center in 1979. He came in at a transitional time for the institution.
Deinstitutionalization — a political movement that pushed the transfer of institutionalized patients from state mental asylums to community mental health centers funded at a federal level — was well underway in Athens at the start of Eberts’ tenure.
“Deinstitutionalization wasn’t as sudden and chaotic as some people think,” Eberts said in an interview in December. “There’s this sense that they just drugged everybody up, kicked them out, closed the place and that was it.”
But the decades-long process was a result of compounding factors, including the first and second generations of antipsychotics, growing advocacy against state asylums, and a court decision that in essence ended patient work programs, according to Katherine Ziff in her book “Asylum on the Hill.”
The Athens Mental Health Center hit its peak population in 1955, Eberts said; it was still called the Athens State Hospital then. At this time, procedures such as lobotomies and “mass quantities” of electroshock therapy were being performed.
“I don’t think people realize it, but they weren’t just trying to be mean to the patients or torture them just for fun,” Eberts said. “There was a sense of hopelessness and futility in mental health treatment.”
As the decade progressed, however, so too came the first wave of antipsychotic medications. This changed everything, Eberts said.
“Asylums seem like a good idea when there is absolutely no way to treat mental illness,” he said.
Eberts added that these hospitals also cost a lot of money; by the 1950s, many state asylums were beginning their spiral into disrepair after years of being overcrowded, underfunded and lacking in adequate resources.
He recalled talking to patients who were part of that transitional time. They felt they could suddenly realize “who [they] were, where [they were] at and what’s going on,” once being treated with the newly discovered and widely available drugs, he said.
But early forms of antipsychotics, like Thorazine, weren’t the perfect answer in treating mental illness. They had a never-ending list of side effects, including a long-term condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD) — prevalent enough that Eberts said you might now come across television advertisements for medicine to combat TD.
As deinstitutionalization gained traction, the 1960s ushered in improved drugs as well as the creation of community mental health agencies under the 1963 Community Mental Health Act.
According to Ziff, American doctors learned during World War II of the effective impacts in treating patients at field hospitals rather than hospitals far away. This knowledge influenced decisions going forward when it came to treating patients living with mental illnesses.
But Eberts, in digging through files he saved, had pulled out a copy of The Athens Messenger from 1971. The front page reads, “Mental Hospital Houses Many Unnecessarily.”
That illustrated the situation in Athens well.
By the 1970s, even with abounding efforts to move toward these local health agencies and shutter state asylums, some families did not want to take their loved ones back in, according to Eberts.
Conversely, some patients didn’t want to leave. Even with changing times and changing practices, they felt tethered to the place they called home for so long. Both Eberts and O’Grady remembered one patient in particular.
Carl had been institutionalized in Athens since the 1930s, according to Eberts.
He had been part of the patient work program. While he did a variety of maintenance on the expansive grounds, he was best known around the wards for removing stumps of trees that had been chopped down by groundskeepers.
“He didn’t care how many weeks it took him,” Eberts said. “It was his home and he helped to sustain it by his labor.”
When patient work programs were eliminated in 1973 and state asylums were required to pay patients at least minimum wage in exchange for their labor, the Athens Mental Health Center couldn’t afford to pay Carl. He went on a hunger strike — until the hospital was able to strike a deal and pay him 50% of minimum wage through a workshop-oriented program.
Eberts said that agreement “saved his life.”
As the center was working to scale down the number of residential patients in the 1980s due to the looming closure, Carl refused to meet with anyone about leaving. For a while, he lived alone on an 18-bedroom hallway, once bustling with fellow patients.
He only budged once. During a series of renovations, he slept in the room next door so that the renovators could work on his bedroom.
Eberts said it took a “real bureaucratic hardass with no conscience or heart” to ultimately push Carl out. He ended up in a nursing home.
“He’d still be there today, if it were possible,” he said. “He was a hero, he was really an icon of the place … You get to know some extraordinary people in a place like that.”
In 1993, the Athens Mental Health Center closed its doors and the last of its continued care patients were transferred to Appalachian Behavioral Health.
For a hospital that once housed more than 1,700 people at times, only somewhere from 40 to 80 patients took the trip down the hill to Appalachian Behavioral Health, according to Eberts.
With the closure of the asylum, Eberts said misconceptions and false information found their way into conversation.
Some former patients naturally fell through the cracks after the Athens Mental Health Center shut its doors, Eberts said. He doesn’t believe, however, that extensively contributed to the number of people who are homeless in Athens — an argument he said he still hears nearly thirty years after the hospital’s closure.
“A legacy of stigma still clings, taking form in persistent undocumented tales,” Ziff wrote in her book.
O’Grady scoffed at the way the story of former patient Margaret Schilling is treated. Schilling died in the attic of the asylum in the winter of 1978 or 1979 after going missing in December 1978. Her body was found in January 1979.
When you Google “The Ridges, Athens, Ohio” one of the results you’ll likely get is a salacious, clickbait image of a stain. Although it’s not exactly clear how Schilling died, exposure to the elements of the harsh winter imprinted a stain in the shape of her body on the concrete floor.
A study in 2008 by Ohio University researchers found that a phosphoric acid-based cleaning fluid, however, is what cemented the stain permanently, according to Ziff.
“The university has had control and responsibility over this facility for 30 some years. For an educational institution not to address that issue, to give some humanity back to this person,” O’Grady said in talking about Schilling. “This is a person who grew up, who still has family in this region.”
Yet ghost stories and rumors about Schilling’s death are still shared like clockwork among scores of Ohio University students and Internet blog writers alike.
“Where’s the compassion? Where is our compassion as a society, as an institution of higher learning, to restore the humanity of this person?” O’Grady said.
In 2021, the landscape at The Ridges is still evolving as Ohio University converts the expansive spread of buildings into a multi-use facility. As Eberts gave a historical walking tour of the grounds in late October 2020, police cruisers occasionally buzzed past; Ohio University Police Department had recently moved its headquarters atop the hill.
“I don’t watch it. I don’t even go up there,” O’Grady said in reference to many of the changes occurring.
But he added that if he went today having never seen the historic structures, he’d still be impressed.
“We built buildings that were prepared to last a thousand years, if they were taken care of,” he said. “Nobody could have imagined that something that big and that well-built would be obsolete in a couple of generations.”
Editor's note: This story is the first installment in a two-part series detailing the history and evolution of mental health services in the area. The second installment will be printed in a future edition of The Athens NEWS.