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Inside Central State Hospital's history

Central State Hospital in Milledgeville is a product of the 19th century's effort to help care for mentally ill patients. It was once the world's largest mental health hospital. It housed more 12,000 patients in the 1960s.

With so many years gone by and so many stories to tell, what history lies behind these walls?

Historian Edwin Atkins is fascinated with Milledgeville and its history.

"Milledgeville State Hospital, the State Asylum, the Sanitarium," Atkins said. "The patients were brought here usually in a car or ambulance, police. They came down this driveway, and they were offloaded under the front porch into a secure door and then taken in for processing,"

The Center Building was completed in 1858. Its doors were often a symbol of a patient's road to recovery.

In 1879, it was named for Dr. Theophilus Powell, the hospital's superintendent from 1879 until 1907. Atkins said Powell is considered one of the fathers of mental health reform. "

"He got rid of the chains and bars on the windows and really ate with the patients and really felt that it was a family kind of environment," Atkins said.

The building's intricate details and architecture echoed Powell's thinking about how a mental health hospital should look.

"They did not want to infer that the family was coming to a prison or to an insane asylum. That did not have a moral kind of attitude and therapy about it," he said.

On the edge of the pecan grove sits the Jones Building, the heart of Central State Hospital in the 1800s. Atkins said it's where the operating room, cafeteria, X-ray and pathology rooms were."

The operating room was one place where Gloria Williams said she assisted doctors during her 30 years as a nurse.

"There were patients everywhere," she said.

Williams said she came to Central State in January 1960. She had several roles, including teaching nursing students how to care for patients.

"It was rewarding, but it was also challenging," she said. "Very often, we would do 75 or 80 shock treatments, or ESTs. Our shock days were Monday, Wednesday and Fridays."

Before shock treatments, doctors at Central State routinely performed lobotomies, which is removing part of the patient's brain to alter their behavior.

"It was once a desired treatment many years ago for people with severe depression or people who were chronically psychotic or schizophrenic," she said. "I have worked around and with patients who had had lobotomies."

Contrary to popular belief, she said, most patients were not confined to the wards.

"We would have parties out here for the patients. We had watermelon cuttings. We had Easter egg hunts. There was always something going on," she said.

Williams retired in 1995 and the hospital has changed, even since then.

The adult mental health services for Central State Hospital discontinued in 2010, after years of questions about how patients were treated. In Georgia and across the country, mental health services moved away from large institutions to group home settings.

Now, some of the buildings are abandoned and unsafe to enter. But one thing is for sure, Central State Hospital still looms over the city of Milledgeville and in the minds of those who walked the halls.

These days, the Hospital Redevelopment Authority is working to revitalize the campus. Mike Couch runs the organization and said there are several projects they're working on. One is the youth challenge academy, a program designed to help at-risk teens graduate high school. Another is the Bostick Center, a Geriatric facility for elderly parolees.


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