Psychiatric care at the historical Athens Mental Health Facility

Cherron Payne
Farmington, Connecticut, United States


Photo of the Athens Asylum for the Insane

Athens Asylum for the Insane, Athens State Hospital Administration Building, Circa late 19th Century to early 20th Century. Ohio University Archives.

When I was an undergraduate student at Ohio University in Athens, my friends and I would often hike to an intriguing place called the Ridges, overlooking the picturesque Hocking River and the Appalachian gem of Ohio University in Southeastern Ohio. The Ridges was not solely a picturesque hillside, but a campus of stately red brick buildings exhibiting the Kirkbride architecture widely used for psychiatric institutions during the mid-nineteenth century. The campus of cobblestone walkways and Victorian Gothic buildings, designed by Levi Scofield, has a haunting past as a psychiatric institution for the mentally ill, mentally delayed, and the criminally insane.

During one of my vernal hikes to the Ridges, I remember peering through the windows of the abandoned asylum buildings. The institution had closed, and the buildings had been conveyed to Ohio University. While the façade of the buildings exhibited a sturdy appearance, the insides were in disrepair. The baby blue paint on the walls was peeling, resembling nail marks feverishly peeling away the paint in protest. However, the buildings’ disrepair was not what was troubling; it was observing a structure resembling a large cage that was chilling. My observation, coupled with my peers’ disturbing accounts, formulated a haunting image of the abandoned Athens Asylum and sparked a curiosity about its history.

Construction on the Athens Asylum commenced in 1868 and concluded in 1873. The asylum opened in 1874 as the Athens Lunatic Asylum. From 1874 to 1993 there were ten iterations of the facility name, concluding with the Athens Mental Health Facility as the final name. The Athens facility could service more than 1,800 patients, although there was often overcrowding, insufficient staff, and a lack of medicine. The Athens Asylum provided services for a spectrum of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, anxiety disorder, and mental disability. However, patients could also be admitted for mild depression, religious zeal, epilepsy, tuberculosis, postpartum depression, and menstrual disorders. Tuberculosis patients were also housed at the Athens Mental Health Facility because it was believed that the facility’s elevation on a hillside would provide fresh air and a serene setting for tubercular patients. Children and adolescents were included in the patient population. The first admittee in 1874 was a fourteen-year-old girl who was suffering from epilepsy. Epilepsy was often misunderstood in the nineteenth century and many thought it stemmed from demonic possession. Some of the other nineteenth century patients included former Civil War soldiers who were suffering from what appeared to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Other patients may have been court-ordered to the facility if found to be criminally insane.

The Athens Asylum has been praised and criticized for its treatment of its patients. The bucolic setting of the Athens Mental Health Facility presented treatment opportunities that were more humane than some of the questionable and archaic treatments utilized at competing asylums. Patients were instructed to garner outside exercise in the sun, which included milking cows and picking fruit. Additionally, there was no physical punishment at the Athens Mental Health Facility.

However, some treatments, often considered inhumane, were also utilized. Lobotomies and electroshock therapies were administered, often yielding permanent and undesired effects. Hydrotherapy, such as very hot and cold baths and showers were used, as well as questionable psychotropic drugs. There was also the issue of patient neglect.

A notable incident occurred at the Athens Mental Health Facility in the case of Margaret Schilling. In December of 1978 a mentally delayed woman disappeared. During the winter of 1979, she was found lifeless and nude on the floor of a room that was locked from the inside. Schilling’s decomposed body left a permanent stain on the floor of the facility room. It is believed that the combination of her decomposed body, sunlight, and cleaning agents caused a chemical reaction, creating a stain that remains on the property today. The site of the stain was initially designated as a crime scene, but the police investigation found no foul play or third-party entanglement.

The official cause of Margaret Schilling’s death is heart failure due to the frigid temperatures she endured during a cold Ohio winter in an unheated room. There are many theories about what caused the tragedy of Margaret Schilling; some attribute it to egregious neglect, incompetence, foul play, suicide, or even murder. While we may never know what happened, this incident invokes contemplation on the history of psychiatric treatment and the conduct in mental asylums in the United States and abroad.

The history of mental illness documents Hippocrates, Plato, and other scholars attempting to advance ideologies and therapies regarding mental illness often without a sound understanding of its cause and effective treatment. While some proposed therapies did help to advance science, many societal members developed their own beliefs about the cause of mental illnesses. For example, Jean-Martin Charcot assigned the etiology of mental illness to the cortical dysfunction of the cerebrum. In Christianity, mental illness or hysteria was believed to be caused by demonic possession. The belief that mental illness was aligned with evil and demonic possession cast a shadow over the understanding of mental illness, leading to uninformed social mores and disheartening banishment of the mentally ill.

An example of historical beliefs about the evil and shameful nature of mental illness can be found at the Ridges where the patient cemetery of the former Athens Asylum remains. The cemetery aligns with the edge of the former mental health facility and consists of acres of grave markers representing the deceased patients. Many of the patients’ grave markers are nameless with only a number carved into the headstones. Because of the sociocultural mores during this time, many believed their mentally ill family member was inherently evil or possessed by a demon. Therefore, family members abandoned the patient after admission into the facility and did not claim their relative upon death.

The misconception of mental illness and its corresponding psychiatric mistreatment was not solely an issue at one particular facility. Such views have been recorded throughout the history of mental institutions in the United States and abroad. Some inhumane treatments that were administered were insulin shock therapy, trephination, tooth extraction, lobotomy, bleeding, purging, exorcism, and Metrazol shock therapy.

As time elapsed, and more research was conducted concerning mental illness, psychiatric care improved. Scholars such as Jung and Freud introduced more insightful understanding of mental illness and psychology. The advent of antipsychotic drugs, including Thorazine, also aided the expulsion of some inhumane treatments.

Over time, the Athens Mental Health Facility improved its therapies and treatment. In a transcript discussing the Athens facility, a 1907 annual report was referenced. The report indicated significant advancement in general medicine including mental illness. For example, in 1943, the health facility started placing identifying information on the headstones of the newly deceased. However, the 1978 case of Margaret Schilling, occurring only fifteen years before this particular institution closed, leaves a stain on history, reminding us how the mentally ill were treated not so long ago.



  1. Sjafiroeddin, Marilyn. “About the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center”. Ohio University Libraries Digital Archives Collection. Accessed September 9, 2021.
  2. Eberts, George. “Athens Sesquicentennial Speaker Series”. Ohio University. Accessed on September 14, 2021.
  3. “Athens Asylum for the Insane/Athens State Hospital Administration Building”. Ohio University Archives. Accessed on September 3, 2021.
  4. Sjafiroeddin, Marilyn. “About the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center”. Ohio University Libraries Digital Archives Collection. Accessed September 9, 2021.
  5. Alvarez, Rafael. “The Athens Asylum Was at the Forefront of Treatment in the 19th Century”. Humanities. Summer 2018, Volume 39, Number 3.
  6. Sjafiroeddin, Marilyn. “About the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center”. Ohio University Libraries Digital Archives Collection. Accessed September 9, 2021.
  7. Milano, Claire. “What Happened to Margaret Schilling?” Murder Murder News. Accessed September 14, 2021,
  8. Eberts, George. “Athens Sesquicentennial Speaker Series”. Ohio University. Accessed on September 14, 2021.
  9. Stetka, Bret, Watson, John. “Odd and Outlandish Psychiatric Treatments Through History”. Medscape. Accessed on September 8, 2021.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Vann, Madeline. “The 10 Worst Mental Health Treatments in History”. Everyday Health. Accessed on September 10, 2021.
  12. Greco, Frank, Deutsch, Curtis. “Carl Gustav Jung and the Psychobiology of Schizophrenia”. Brain. Volume 140, Issue 1, January 2017.
  13. McLeod, Saul. “Sigmund Freud’s Theories.” Simply Psychology. Accessed on September 14, 2021.
  14. Sjafiroeddin, Marilyn. “About the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center”. Ohio University Libraries Digital Archives Collection. Accessed September 9, 2021.



CHERRON PAYNE is a magistrate, attorney, and contracts and compliance manager in scientific research. In 2016, she was appointed by former Governor Malloy to serve as the chair of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Dr. Payne also served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern Connecticut Community College and is currently the president of the Connecticut Magistrates Association. Dr. Payne is a Fulbright recipient and has also received a fellowship and an apprenticeship to work in biological research. She received her J.D. from Vanderbilt, a doctorate from Northeastern University, and a master’s degree from Harvard.


Fall 2021  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology