Out of Mind, Out of Sight: A Revealing History of the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee and Mental Health Care in Florida

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I came to know of the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, originally called the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, but more commonly referred to simply as “Chattahoochee” by long-time Floridians, back in the 1960s when I first moved to Florida. Its reputation at that time was . . . well . . . pretty bad, but in reality not so different than most mental institutions around the country. But those institutions didn’t have the amazing history like Chattahoochee.

From a federal arsenal during the Second Seminole and Civil Wars, to Freedman’s Bureau, to Florida’s first state penitentiary, and finally to asylum, the Florida State Hospital has a remarkable past. And, when you move into the 1900s, the story reveals more–political scandals, patient abuse, use of treatments such as ECT and lobotomies, and the incarceration of thousands of men, women, and children who weren’t really mentally ill at all.     

Set against the backdrop of the evolution of the country’s mental heal care system from institutional care to community-based treatment centers, Out of Mind, Out of Sight reveals for the first time the entire history of Chattahoochee. It will also bring you up to date with those who currently occupy the facility–forensic patients, those who have been convicted of a crime but who are considered mentally incompetent to stand trial.


See what those in the mental health care field have to say about | Out of Mind, Out of Sight:

Out of Mind, Out of Sight gives an extensive, captivating, and accurate account of mental health treatment in Florida with special attention to the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee. Even though I was on staff at Chattahoochee for thirty-eight years, I discovered fascinating information I never knew. A compelling story, Out of Mind, Out of Sight is written in an interesting and informative way for both professional and lay readers.” Sam Cunningham Licensed Clinical Psychologist

“Florida, like many Southern states, lagged in terms of providing its citizens with appropriate mental health care. In Out of Mind, Out of Sight, Sally J. Ling provides a revealing portrait of the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee and its travails since its formal founding in 1877. The result is a poignant picture of an institution and demonstrates how far Florida has come in creating a system of mental health care that serves the needs of all of its citizens.” Gerald N. Grob, Ph.D. Henry E. Sigerist Professor of the History of Medicine Ereritus Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research Rutgers University

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HAVE  QUESTIONS REGARDING MENTAL ILLNESS?

For information on mental illness or to assist a loved one with mental illness, visit The National Alliance on Mental Illness Florida. 

NAMI Florida 1030 E Lafayette St Ste 10 Tallahassee, FL 32301 (850) 671-4445 Email address: info@namiflorida.org

44 Responses to Out of Mind, Out of Sight: A Revealing History of the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee and Mental Health Care in Florida

  1. M. Z. Kelly says:

    Ms. Ling is doing a great humanitarian service by bringing certain aspects of this part of history to light that have remained behind closed doors for decades upon decades. I am very aware of the abuse, imprisonment, brutality, neglect, incongruity and ignorance surrounding the treatment of those locked away in “poor farms”, houses for “imbeciles”, and so-called “asylums” throughout American history. Though the official terms have changed many times, these edifices contained some of society’s darkest secrets–housing the indigent, criminally insane, pedophiles, single mothers, orphans, physically disabled and others whom people just didn’t want to “deal with” under the same roof. I am a native Floridian who has had loved ones incarcerated there and recommends insightful reading such as Ms. Ling’s works; because Chattahoochie is no exception to this horrid and longtime clandestine chapter of history. If anyone has any free resources detailing this place’s history and present (especially patient stories, treatment, policy and living conditions), please feel free to reply with links or comments. I am searching for the detailed facts exposing what really went on (and still goes on) concerning the workings of Chattahoochie on the inside. Public mental health policy is one of the most underfunded and ignored issues that exists in America today. Psychology itself is still a young and poorly understood science; with mistreatment and misdiagnoses running rampant. People have been conditioned to regard the mentally ill as one-size-fits-all “crazy” without distinction, and some of the more severely ill are still viewed as if they are animals. I cannot afford to buy online books and such, but I implore anyone with inside knowledge to please share it so myself and the rest of society can fully realise life in a state mental institution, both in the past and present. Also, please inform me if an online free version of “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” is available, as well as similar books and articles recounting stories of life within the institution walls. The forgotten victim’s of this facility deserve recognition; and patients today deserve to know their rights and be treated with dignity and true quality medical care designed to improve quality of life…. not mearly contained, detained, and controlled because their conditions are not fully “officially” understood. It should be clear that major changes must be made and silent voices heard. And change always starts in the mind and heart and the willingness to dig deeper. Anyway, if you have experienced the dark side of this system or just really care about those lives affected, I would appreciate all comments, stories, links, etc. as long as they are honest.
    Remember, a nation is only as great as it treats its most vulnerable.

  2. Kathy S. Johnson says:

    Trust me, M.Z. Kelley, changes have been made at Florida State Hospital with focus on the best treatment available for patients at FSH. The horrible events that took place long ago are not repeated in today’s world. FSH has some of the most qualified and caring staff members. Kathy S. Johnson, Owner/Publisher Twin City News, Chattahoochee, FL

    • Paula Fenner says:

      My daughter Gabrielle Slocum is there now. She is 29 going on 30 in age.
      Physical and verbal abuse exists and she literally has NO counselor.

      Gabrielle is mentally ill, diagnosed as a child w/Bi-Polar she is Schitzo now.

      State of Iowa committed her at the age of 13 to the Cherokee Mental Health Institutue in Iowa. My daughter is incapable of caring for herself; gets disability but not enought to live on if they did cut her loose. She is a felon; but has been found not accountable for her actions mostly due to her mental illness. Yet she would struggle finding affordable housing if she was released.

      She has been verbally abused and physically abused by male and female staff members; yet she tells me better than being on her own.

      So tell me do you really think changes have been made? How can they justify her not having a counselor. How?

      • admin says:

        My heart and prayers go out to you and your daughter. What a difficult situation. Not being in the medical or legal field and being simply a historian, I can’t offer you any advice, just empathy. In the 1970’s when the country deinstitutionalized and “progressed” to community-based clinics many institutions released their mentally ill onto the streets. These folks became our homeless and received their meds from these clinics. I do hope someone in the “system” can give you the answers you seek.

      • Kathy S. Johnson says:

        Each patient, at Florida State Hospital, is assigned a treatment team, that consists of a medical doctor, a clinical psychologist, a social worker and rehab staff. In lieu of accepting everything your daughter tells you as complete fact – afterall, YOU stated that she was mentally ill, bi-polar AND schizophrenic – you need to speak with at least one of her treatment team members. Apparently, your daughter has some extremely serious issues. There is no magic pill to cure mental illness…but it does take cooperation from the patient and the patient’s family. Now is your chance to get involved, for the sake of your child. The statement that she has no counselor is devoid of fact.

        • Bernadette Rotchford says:

          Ms. Johnson with all due respect, my son has been at FL State Hospital in Chattahoochee for 6 years. I have been asking to be conferenced via telephone, due to the far distance I live since, September, 2013. I have not been conferenced in to one. My son has been beaten up by security, there are proper take down procedures and I am sure it does not include 6 on 1, kicking in the testicles, ribs, and face. If you think this is treatment, go and have a visit yourself, put your loved one there, and see how the “Treatment is”. Maam there is no 1:1, the classes, don’t teach reading, writing, or basic life skills. They house them and medicate them, and some of this is from their own employees. I will not give up their due to they don’t want to be fired. I am in social services, this is not treatment.

    • eric m says:

      I beg to differ Ms. Johnson, as a former patient, I have seen abuse and neglect on a first hand basis. beatings regularly occur in the “program” section and are away from cameras. patients who are handicapped are left unbathed for months at a time, and incontinent patients are left sitting in their excrement for hours. we had one man attacked by other patients and was beaten for 15 minutes before staff did anything to stop it, he had numerous broken bones and nearly died. mail is kept away from patients, causing problems with court times and dates. my attorney had to call the hospital and make a fuss because mail from him was withheld for over a month. checks from ssi are regurlarly cashed without being endorsed, they even cashed one of mine that was delivered there inadvertently after I had left the hospital. the food is junk. corn dogs and chicken gizzards(?) and patients are not allowed any food sent by their families except as a treat on Tuesdays and Fridays. that is if the staff hasn’t eaten it first. there are a lot of major problems at Florida State Hospital that need to be addressed before you can say the problems were in the past. they are happening today. I got out on 10/23/2013, so I know.

      • admin says:

        Eric,
        I have forwarded your post on to the administrator of the FSH. I was told they are very interested to see these types of comments so corrections can be made. I have not given them your name or email address. If you want to address this issue with them, let me know and I will give you a name and phone number to contact them.
        Sally

      • brian says:

        Eric m i need tovtalk to u about my wife u may know her i know there is abuse they r holding her prisoner because they want to protect their politicians people like u need to speak out so we can stop thus abuse. A woman’s baby died in there there has been rapes and beatings . I will gather the victims together and it sounds like either u were one or u at least witnessed it if we get enough victims they can’t dismiss our voices. Tell me how i can contact u its a great disservice what they are doing. Every day that people are silent the atrocity continues.

        • admin says:

          Hi Brian,
          I have contacted some people who may be able to help. This being the holidays, I don’t know how responsive they will be but I assure you, I will stay on top of these comments. Sally

          • brian says:

            who can help with this? Who have u contacted? i love my wife and i know she and other people have been abused in that hellhole forever. No civil commitment should be allowed in a place like that they have no oversight, its ran like a prison. There are sex abuses ,beatings, stealing my wife didnt even have clothes.There needs to be a permanent shutdown to state hospitals. No more criminalizing illness. There should be local hospitals with real oversight RICK SCOTT defunded oversight in the budget along with many other shenanigans. Please help I got the feeling there could be more books or even movies about some of issues I know alot more than I can write here. I would like to talk to u in depth about what I know there is an election coming up.

      • Bernadette Rotchford says:

        Good for you Eric, the same is happening to my son. I hope you are doing well, try to do your best to stay out of a place like that. May you b blessed.

  3. Paula Fenner says:

    Would like to hear from others who have loved one’s in this institution what is it like for them?

    • Paula Fenner says:

      Have you ever thought about writing a book from a mothers experience of having a mentally ill child and from the experience of mentally ill person?

      Many of these movies, they have on mental illness can’t scratch the surface of what my daughter has gone through. I have thought about it, but I lived it and it was exhausting the first time. Thank you for your response; I am looking at other ways in which to have the situation investigated.

  4. Anonymous worker says:

    Ms. Sally Cunningham is not a licensed psychologist. Thank you.

    • admin says:

      You referenced a Sally Cunningham in your comment. The only reference I have in my book is to Sam Cunningham who served as a licensed clinical psychologist at Chattahoochee for thirty-eight years, so I’m not sure to whom you are referring. Perhaps if you could expound further on your comment I could address it. Thank you.

  5. Threatened State says:

    Kathy please. Are you going through this with a family member? Do you work at the FSH? How can you question the involvement of a mother with her child. My daughter is 20 yrs old and I am more than involved. She is constantly being threatened to be sent away to FSH by staff of places that are set aside to Help with Mental Illness. My daughters illness isnt severe, she functions well, work she just sometimes gets very emotional and she cant control it….Fit for Fsh? She had threatened her own life….fsh material? I know of folks that have gone to state hospital, and the abuse makes you want to commit suicide. The mismedication, No Rights…you are trash until someone is visiting taking tours…..then they are A+ staff. Have a mental disability is a curse in Florida..God help us and Kathy for standing up for fsh.

  6. bill says:

    I was one of those abused at florida state cattahoochie hospital they had me on. 20 physictrobic. Medicens and stap me. Down and sexually touched me. Against. My. Will overmedicated.I did not have a. Counseler my social worker new about it I told her nothing was done .so it goes on. The security who is not autherized to give medication and shots they know were the cameras are so they can take you out of sight of camera to beat you. There’s just too much oi should tell the. Media but I got a lawyer I been out two years re diognosed and I am not bi poler are scifrenia and I have paper to prove it.

  7. No place else to turn says:

    I have a 21 yr old son who is seriously mentally ill. Originally diagnosed with Bipolar but slipping into full blown schzitzophrenia. He has been hospitalized here in FL about 8 or 9 times (losing count) and is caught up in the all to familiar “revolving door” of a very broken mental health system. He recently tried to commit suicide while he was at Windmoor hospital. He keeps threatening and talking about getting a gun and hurting people and although i have shared this with judges, lawyers, state representatives, etc….. Nobody is talking action and helping. My wife and I feel the FSH is our last resort. The system is designed to only take serious action AFTER something bad happens. Extremely frustrating!! I am concerned he might be mistreated but that is better than losing him to suicide or having him hurt innocent people. I have not read this book but will be downloading a copy today. THANK YOU for bringing additional light to this subject.

    • No place else to turn says:

      Of course I have also shared this threats with many, many doctors. Most of whom are completely useless and don’t seem to really care. The baker act process is FL is a joke.

    • admin says:

      Yours is a very sad case. I am so sorry you are going through this. In the past (before the 1970s), the FSH took cases such as yours. With the present system of community based clinics, it is indeed more difficult to get help for the seriously mentally ill. And, the family takes the brunt of the stress and problems. I hope someone in the mental health care field sees your note and can respond to you.

  8. Ms. CJ McKenzie says:

    My son is in Treasure coast now and is suppose to be on the waiting list for Mckenny or Chatahoossee……. He is 36 and I am 100% involeved in his care so PLEASE SOME ONE PLEASE Help me….. Is this a good place it sure does not sound like it to me…. WHERE does one go for help thanks YOU
    Ms. McKenzie

  9. brian says:

    My wife was unfairly baker acted with malicious intent because i discovered her abuse in a local hospital st anthonys. She wanted me to be her guardian but we didn’t do the ers right. Now they are holding her captive because they know she will talk but I’m going to tell everybody and i know the governor and the attorney general know about it

  10. What can i do for my son he needs help but i hear of these horror stories and i don’t know where to turn.

  11. brian says:

    Why was my comment not accepted my wife is being held prisoner. and she has been abused there is even a whistleblower who says people are beaten and raped for 5 years i won’t go away and leave her. why no response. nobody will help me I will expose the dirty secrets of this state around the world if i don’t get help i thought you would help because your a journalist please respond.

  12. Charlie says:

    Another great resource for your readers given to me by the good folks at NAMI.

    Thank you!

  13. brian says:

    Im wondering since the holidays are over who am I supposed to contact? I am finding more evidence of abuses and they have been going on since the FSH was in place. They are still going on today which is shameful. I know that there are lawsuits going on right now and I would like help in getting my wife out of her hell. There is torture and abuse going on right now in all the hospitals. The reason is because like you say its out of sight out of mind. The local hospital is connected with it and because I have no money they think they can get away with it. The Baker Act is misused my wife was not dangerous we had financial problems because she lost her job and I didnt have one. They abused her in St Anthonys Hospital and when I tried to complain to staff and administration they did this to us. Bay Care runs their hospitals and they give money to Catholic Charities. After Catholic Charities promised both of us that they would help us then they changed their minds. It was a federal program to help people like us. And no matter how powerful their corporation is Im not going to back off until they do whats right. Catholic Charities is supposed to be christian and they promised both of us they would help and Ive done some studying they get about 70% of their money from the federal goverenment which means it belongs to everyone we met the legal criteria for the help and I explained the abuses to them. I have to believe they were threatened by Bay Care. Please help being a journalist I would think you would want the full story because its the biggest since O’connor vs Donaldson which changed federal law.

    • admin says:

      The contact I had regarding this hasn’t gotten back to me, but I am emailing her your note. Hopefully, she will decide to take up the cause. If not, I suggest you go directly to the press in the town in which you live, or to an attorney that does pro bono work or Social Services. Maybe even the police, if they will listen perhaps they can suggest someone to whom you can go. They have lots of connections as they deal with these kinds of issues all the time.

  14. MC says:

    My mother was a patient of FSH for many years, off and on. Reading your book gave me courage to seek her medical records (she has since passed away). I don’t know much about her- time to demystify her life. The State of Florida provided my mother with a job in Tallahassee, usually clerical – affectionately termed “dummy jobs” -when she was well enough to work. I’ve tried to learn more about this program, without luck. Such a progressive idea for its time, I suspect that funds are no longer appropriated for this kind of support for Florida’s mentally ill. In your book, you mention foster care for some of those released from FSH, do you know anything about this job program?

    • admin says:

      I’m glad you are trying to find more information about your mother. Some of the patients deemed well enough were in rehab programs that allowed them to ‘work’ at jobs in and around the hospital. Some of these jobs were making objects in the carpentry shop, hand work for the ladies–knitting, needlepoint, crocheting, hair salon, and other places. These proved successful in training those who would be released. Another program where patients were used in gardening or as a handyman was short lived, although it was very successful. Because there were so many blacks involved in this program, some viewed it as discriminatory. It was discontinued, though it provided a creative outlet for the patients and assistance to some of the hospital staff who lived on the property.

  15. MC says:

    I appreciate the background you’ve provided regarding the Seminole and military conflicts in and around Gadsden County. I’m wondering if there is record of Native American participation in the hospital’s history either as inmates or patients? I’ve also looked through the terribly long list of people buried on the hospital grounds and I can’t help but wonder why there were so many deaths in those early years? It’s clear from your reports that the hospital housed a large number of people, but this alone doesn’t account for the striking number of annual mortalities, does it? Like you, I’m fascinated by the long and complex history of FSH, I hope you don’t mind the questions.

    • admin says:

      Don’t mind the questions at all. I look forward to hearing from readers. In fact, I’d appreciate it if you’d go on Amazon and write a brief review of the book. It really helps authors.

      Early records of the hospital are few as a fire destroyed many of the records. Death in the early years was caused by a number of things: lack of appropriate medical treatment (sometimes medical doctors didn’t see patients for months), disease (i.e., housing TB patients alongside healthy ones, unsanitary conditions, etc.), self-inflicted or other-inflicted injuries (many patients were dangerous to themselves and others), and staff abuse.

  16. Karen Dawson says:

    I hope you can be of help to me. My mother was adopted by her maternal Aunt and
    I never knew her. My grandmother was institutionalized at Florida State when she
    found out my mother died at age 42, after her funeral. Her sister did not want to share my mother with her. She may have been there from 1965 until she died there at age 73.
    I was informed by her daughter-in-law that she died of a broken neck. I just received
    her death certificate and it states she was schizophrenic, and died of a heart attack.
    I do not believe she was schizophrenic, but depressed, and abused, and did die a violent death that of course would stop her heart. How can I find the documents to learn the truth?

    Grandaughter of Rose Anna Geraghty Dinkla Karen Vogel Dawson

    • admin says:

      You can contact the hospital directly to see if they have any records. Also, I would request records from the autopsy. You’d probably have to do a bit of digging and find out if autopsies took place at the FSH or the county Medical Examiner’s office (the hospital is in Gadsden County)? These are public record on a closed case. I’d also contact the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees the hospitals, to see what they can offer. Wishing you all the best with your search.

  17. Teresa says:

    would be glad to share info and try to get some my great grandmother was in the Chattahoochee asylum around 1919 I was told her father and many of the male committed suicide I know two personally my mother and aunt are still living their was supposed to be a study on the family regarding the number of suicides in our line feel free to contact us if you like. thanks

    • admin says:

      Hi Teresa,
      Sent you a personal email to follow up with you. Please check your spam folder, in case it doesn’t show up in your regular email. Sally

  18. DMT says:

    Been there done that. And that response by K Johnson sounds pretty typical of the crap they dish out. Was a good one there, long time back-therapist called Christine Baker. Other than her the rest were shit.

  19. PseudoPharmaChiatry - Welcome to "The System" says:

    It’s the “meds”. My brother has been on “meds” for 15 years. He’s done nothing but gotten worse. He is now being threatened to be sent to this place because he wants to come off the “meds”.

    I’ve been doing tons of research on what these “meds” do to people’s brains. It ain’t pretty at all. There are lots of people who just suck it up and take the “meds”. They end up with a life span 30-40 years shorter than average.

    For our family, we have always just thought my brother was born with a “mental illness”. Perhaps he was just born to see the world differently, but i can tell you this for sure. The “meds” have done absolutely nothing to help him no matter how many new and improved “meds” come out. He’s been to the “human trials”.

    The only thing the “meds” seem to accomplish is to shut him completely down. He doesn’t want to live his life like this, but the sad part is, one of the major side effects of coming off of these neurotoxins is violence.

    It is totally possible to come off the “meds” under supervision of a doctor. I watched my brother do it once before, but unfortunately as soon as he did something “stupid” like break a silly law, he gets put right back on them from the Baker Act. Each time someone tries to force “meds” on him, he hates the system more and more.

    The only real solution is for families to begin to understand what their loved ones are going through. This is extremely difficult, I know. However, it’s a lot easier to deal with an unproductive family member who steals money, steals food, stomps around all night, talks to himself, laughs out loud, is socially awkward, etc etc by now you know, it’s 1000x’s easier to deal with that than to deal with the thought of letting “The System” put him/her in a place like this.

    “Chattahoochee” is used by jails and Baker Act facilities as a threat against inmates, patients, and families to coerce compliance and force people to act against their will.

    Shut the place down. Shut down the whole idea that we can control people with drugs. Shut down the whole idea that “mental illness” is something that is pathologically defined and can be treated by chemically cutting off pieces of the brain.

    You don’t treat someone who is cold and arrogant by giving them heart bypass surgery. Why would you treat someone who acts weird and talks funny by giving them brain bypassing chemicals?

    Most psychiatry is nothing more than a disease masquerading as it’s own cure. It’s definitely a sick profession. No other type of doctor or hospital I know cuts off patients from families or threatens patients with forced psychotic inducing drugs and imprisonment at a house of horrors.

    The last thing that an emotionally disturbed person needs is to have those who we trust to care for our well being the most, doctors, to strike fear into them or experiment on them like lab rats.

    I am definitely going to read this book. I am sure what I will find is that the modern version of this facility is nothing more than a Politically Correct echo of the past.

    • admin says:

      My heart goes out to you and others with family members who are mentally ill. It’s a difficult place to be with few options. I know many of those who care for the mentally ill are loving, dedicated professionals. I also know they get as frustrated as the families when therapy and drugs do little to alleviate the problems as treatments are not an exact science. I do hope you find the answers you seek. I extend my prayers and God’s blessings to you and your brother.

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