The UT Hogg Foundation maintains the mental health records of Austin State Hospital
When construction began on the new Austin State Hospital in October 2019, one concern was what would happen to the hospital’s history.
When it opened as the State Lunatic Asylum in 1861, it was the first mental illness treatment hospital in Texas.
The state has allocated $ 304.6 million to the new project, which is being developed in partnership with the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School. The new hospital, which is expected to open in November 2023, will be about the same size as the previous hospital with 240 beds.
The demolition of the older, decaying buildings was completed in December 2020. The Old Main Building, a historic Texas landmark, remains intact.
Now the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health has provided a $ 260,000 grant to help preserve and digitize the hospital’s records. The records include patient admission; Treatment and discharge instructions; Budgets; Personnel records; Photographs; and design notes.
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“This type of work helps dissolve the stigma surrounding mental health,” said Kelli Weldon, press secretary for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state hospital system, via email. “Preservation of historical documents will help tell the story of the development of the state hospital system and restoration of mental health in state hospitals, as well as document the development and evolution of mental health care.”
This is the first archive-related project the Hogg Foundation helped fund, but it has spent 10 years archiving its own records.
This work can help highlight health inequalities and past inequalities, said Elizabeth Stauber, archivist and records manager for the Hogg Foundation.
Record keeping is a problem across the country, she said. “Many hospitals do not have a strategic record-keeping policy for their management.”
King Davis, former director of the Hogg Foundation and professor emeritus of African and African diaspora studies and research professor at the UT School of Information, will organize the work and will be supported by students and professors from the School of Information.
Davis has done similar projects, including at the Central State Hospital in Virginia, which was originally intended for African American people.
His work at Austin State Hospital will begin after the new year.
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Davis said he believes the records here are in relatively good shape compared to other hospitals he has worked in, where records are kept in plastic bags in a garage and have turned to dust. Austin’s records are kept in filing cabinets, but that’s a moisture-free environment, he said.
“I saw some records there from the 1850s and they are legible,” he said.
He doesn’t know how many of the records can be digitized or how many have been exposed to too much heat or moisture and damaged, King said.
Once the records are digitized, it is up to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services to decide what to do with them.
The Austin State Hospital Redesign Project has an active historical working group that will examine how items such as documents are kept and where and how they are displayed, Weldon said. “There is a plan to digitize the records and make them available to families and the public upon request and in accordance with state and federal data protection laws,” Weldon said.
The first step, according to Stauber, is to save, digitize and catalog the records in order to make it easier for families or researchers to search. When a family wants to see their ancestral records or a researcher wants information, hospital staff may not know where to look, Stauber said.
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“If they’re just in cardboard boxes in a room and nobody knows they’re there, you can’t comply with such a request,” she said.
Once the documents are digitized and cataloged, all research applications must be approved by the Health and Social Services Institutional Review Board for Research.
Davis said he believes his team will spot patterns in the documents and then apply to the review board to use them in future research articles. While doing research in other hospitals, he looked at which people were diagnosed in the past and how they were treated and who was hospitalized for a mental illness.
“A lot of people don’t understand how valuable ASH’s records are,” said Davis. “We can learn from the past.”