History of Big Spring State Hospital

The 45th Texas Legislature authorized the construction of Big Spring State Hospital in 1937 to serve the people of the West Texas area. The city donated the 577 acres, which at the time was valued at $51,400 and philanthropist Dora Roberts guaranteed a permanent water supply. Governor James V Allred placed the facility in Big Spring because of the need for a psychiatric hospital in West Texas. Ground was broken in January 1938, and the hospital opened 18 months later in June 1939. Within six months, the hospital treated 402 patients, most of whom were transferred from other state facilities.

The original eight buildings designated as the general hospital were the administration building, including professional and administrative staff living quarters; the employees building, which included housing for direct care and clerical staff; the men's receiving hospital; the women's receiving hospital; the psychiatric hospital; the laundry; the power house; and the supply building. A railroad spur was located west of the supply building in order for the transportation and delivery of hospital supplies.

Five additional buildings were constructed on campus within the next 10 years at a cost of $778,000. Improvements to the grounds and the addition of equipment brought the total hospital investment to $1,060,571. Today, the hospital physical plant includes 25 buildings.

Big Spring State Hospital's staff also has grown since 1939. More than 100 employees originally tended to the needs of more than 400 patients. Two physicians, a social worker, psychologist, superintendent, clinical director, a storekeeper/accountant, four registered nurses, a dairyman, swinesman, yardman and about 500 attendants. Most of the employees lived on hospital property working 12-hour shifts. The pay was low, but was supplemented by free housing, meals and medical care. More than 640 employees currently work for Big Spring State Hospital, serving people in 58 counties through seven community mental health centers.

At the height of the hospital's population, more than 1,100 patients were cared for at the psychiatric hospital. During World War II, the hospital census fell to 211 patients, and buildings were closed for a short period of time. The development of active treatment programs, drug treatment, the addition of treatment modalities and the use of community-based outreach clinics, shortened hospitalization stays.

The hospital housed a dairy, hog unit, cotton farm and a training program for mules in the 1940s. Patients raised the animals with staff supervision. Community members often left the animals for three years and returned to pickup mules whom had "broke to the plow." Cotton raised at the hospital was sold to fund hospital programs. Patients made mattresses for all the state's hospitals at a mattress factory on campus. Linens were mended and clothes were constructed in a sewing area. The patients also did most of the yard work, laundry, housekeeping, and food preparation. But as laws and standards in patient care changed, and the length of hospitalization decreased, many of these work programs ended.

For many years, Howard County residents brought their unwanted or injured animals to the hospital. Patients and hospital employees treated these animals and adopted them, caring for their needs until they could be adopted.

Patients attended dances, which were attended by employees, patients and Big Spring-area residents. These social events were held on the tennis courts during the summer. Movies were also shown for the patients' enjoyment, and the community provided a Christmas party each year. This tradition continues today, and is coordinated by the Community Relations Department.

The original methods of treatment for the patients were very innovative for their time and included hydrotherapy, "fever" therapy, insulin therapy, and custodial care. In 1947, electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) came into popular use and it was added to the treatment procedures used. In the middle 50s, the census of the hospital was increasing and the hospital began to participate in the clinical investigations of the use of tranquilizing medications. When tranquilizing medication was finally accepted into general practice, many patients before seen as chronic and incurable, were released to their home communities and families and other methods of treatment such as hydrotherapy, insulin therapy, etc., were declared antiquated and taken out of use.

Presently the emphasis is placed on quality treatment to shorten the period of illness, to rehabilitate, and to return the patient to the community as quickly as possible. In order to do this, treatment modalities have expanded to include a full range of rehabilitation therapies, education, individual and group psychotherapy, and family intervention as an adjunct to medication. Patients who come to the hospital are treated not only for their psychiatric problems, but also for any problem needing medical attention.

Big Spring State Hospital has been heralded in the state for being first in many advances made in mental health. This hospital was the first hospital to unlock its door during daylight hours. During the year when the doors were locked, it was found that the patients who were off the locked units in the daytime did not run away.

Big Spring State Hospital was the first hospital in the state to cooperate with the local school district piloting an on-campus educational program for patients leading to an accredited school program on campus. It was the first psychiatric hospital to integrate and to place both male and female patients on the same unit; to have specialty units for the treatment of adolescents and alcoholics, and to eliminate the use of white uniforms for staff.

Big Spring State Hospital piloted the ombudsman program for patients, which has developed into the present day Public Responsibility Committee and was one of the first hospitals to have an organized volunteer program.

Many employment opportunities exist at Big Spring State Hospital, which may include stipends for nursing students and short-term housing.

Last updated April 8, 2011