he goal of the Alabama Department of Mental Health’s closing of Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon in October 2012 was to transition patients into community-based programs that would provide the least restrictive environment for them, allowing them to live their potential in the community. Some patients have benefited from day treatment programs, in-home intervention programs and group homes, but many still lack the proper treatment.
Both Mount Vernon Mayor Terry Williams and Dr. Bert Eichold of the Mobile County Health Department have reached out to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to appeal to her to repurpose and reopen the century old facility.
Alcohol, drug abuse treatment
Eichold would like to see the Alabama Department of Corrections take over the facility and form a program that emphasizes alcohol and drug abuse treatment. Eichold sees the property as a place where nonviolent offenders could go to focus on their mental health and substance abuse needs while learning job training. Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver says that since the doors of Searcy Hospital closed, there has been an increase in mentally ill inmates at the jail. Currently about 10 percent of Metro’s population depends on medication for daily functioning, while many others are in isolation due to their severe mental illness symptoms.
The old military barracks in 1917.
Eichold’s answer is this, “Make the major emphasis for treating alcohol and substance abuse. Searcy was designed as a mental health hospital; could it be a mental health correctional facility?”
In his letter to the governor, Eichold requested that the administration consider using the old Searcy Hospital buildings for such a facility. Gov. Ivey’s response stated that while she would like to see both jobs and treatment return to the Mount Vernon area, the infrastructure cost would be “millions of dollars.” Eichold expressed his frustration by saying, “I’m always discouraged when we say we don’t have enough money to do what we need to do, but I understand how complex of an issue this is. Why not reactivate Searcy? We already own it. I know it’s cheaper to fix something up than it is to build something new.”
Geronimo was a prisoner at Mt. Vernon.
Infrastructure a concern
The response from the Alabama Department of Mental Health echoed Ivey’s statements, citing the lack of infrastructure as a major concern.
Searcy Hospital is a historic site. It consists of more than 30 historic buildings that are slowly being swallowed by the effects of time, neglect and apathy. It was originally the site of Mount Vernon Arsenal, founded in 1828. The site is one of two of America’s original 14 arsenals. The other, located in Kennebec, Maine, also became an asylum.
Military encampment in 1812
The site was established in 1811 as an inland military encampment. It was built three miles inland in hopes of avoiding the mosquitoes that swarmed the Tombigbee River. General Andrew Jackson utilized the site during the War of 1812.
In 1828, Congress authorized construction of Mount Vernon Arsenal as one of 14 to be built nationally in an effort to create a unified defense. The arsenal was completed in 1836 and encompassed by a 12-foot wall.
The arsenal was seized by the Alabama militia in 1861 and turned over to the Confederacy. Equipped with only 17 soldiers and General J.L. Reno, the federal government regained control at the end of the war. For the next 30 years, more buildings were added to the site.
Geronimo held at Mt. Vernon
For a seven-year period between 1887 and 1894, 400 Chiricahua Apache prisoners of war were housed at the arsenal including the famous Chief Geronimo. None of these individuals were ever charged with crimes. The Indians were transferred to an Okalahoma reservation in 1894.
From 1887-1890, U.S. Army physician Walter Reed served as a surgeon at the site and treated the Apache. It was Reed who confirmed that Yellow Fever was transmitted by mosquitoes.
Became mental health hospital
The site was decommissioned as a military post in 1895 and the state of Alabama was granted ownership. The site sat abandoned until 1900 when it became Mount Vernon Hospital for the Colored Insane, an asylum established to provide care for mentally ill African Americans. The state gave $25,000 to start the hospital and for two years new buildings were constructed. In 1902, the first patients and staff arrived.
One of the first intensive disease studies in the United States took place at the site in 1906. A disease known as Italian Pellagra, which caused suicidal thoughts and blistering skin was reported among the patients. It was believed that the cause of the illness was the ingestion of “Indian Corn” or dried corn.
Dr. George H. Searcy studied the patients and determined that their infirmities were caused by eating moldy cornmeal. None of the medical staff ate the cornmeal and none became ill. The facility was renamed for Dr. Searcy in 1919.
Surgery was added to the myriad of services provided by the hospital. This meant that patients no longer had to be transferred to receive surgical services. In 1969, Alabama psychiatric hospitals were desegregated. White patients were now admitted to Searcy Hospital and black patients were now admitted to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa. During these years, Searcy Hospital was described as a beautiful place where patients received expert care.
Court ruling changed care
In 1970, Alabama ranked last among all 50 states for expenditures related to the care of mentally ill individuals or developmentally delayed individuals living in public institutions. A landmark court case, Wyatt V. Stigney, established baseline care and treatment guidelines for institutionalized individuals. Sadly, until the ruling, Alabama’s institutions were used as a dumping ground for individuals who were problematic to their families or society. The 1971 ruling stated that, “There can be no legal (or moral) justification for the State of Alabama’s failing to afford treatment—and adequate treatment from a medical standpoint” to mentally ill patients. The ruling forced change in the entire mental health system in Alabama. It also required that institutions attempt to place patients in the community with adequate follow-up treatment.
State funding for community mental health programs grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Modern wards were constructed at Searcy. There were 400 extended-care beds available and 124 intermediate-care beds.
Closed in 2012
By the year 2000, many of the buildings on the campus of Searcy Hospital were in disrepair and in derelict condition. On Feb. 15, 2012, it was announced that the facility would be closed by the state. The last admissions were taken in September 2012 with the hospital closing on Oct. 31, 2012, leaving several hundred patients in limbo, searching for adequate care in rural Alabama and approximately 300 employees looking for work.
The campus of Searcy Hospital is barricaded and an occasional security guard or squirrel is the only sign of life. Kudzu covers many buildings and a 12-foot high brick fence blocks an onlooker’s view. There are as many as 13 pre- Civil War structures on the campus, but these are rapidly decaying. The Alabama Department of Mental Health still owns the property.
This campus is beautiful and historic, but with the beauty and history is mixed sadness. Sadness for the historic structures that are being lost mixes easily with sadness for the ones who are buried on the grounds with no grave markers and for those who are still struggling to find the help that they need.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.