“Seeking Asylum” opens in Milledgeville

GC’s alumni’s photography exhibit on Central State Hospital draws attention to mental health


Jessica Whitehead

Photo of the trail to men’s prison at Central State

Kylie Rowe, Contributing Writer

Jessica Whitehead, GC alumna and judicial assistant for Superior Court Judge Terry N. Masse of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, has a photography exhibit called “Seeking Asylum” opening Feb. 4 in the W.H. Smith Building in downtown Milledgeville. The exhibit displays the beauty of the abandoned Central State Hospital here in Milledgeville.

Whitehead enhances the colors and ambiance that she was able to find on this campus with a long, sometimes dark history. Whitehead is also working on a book that will complement her exhibit and give insight to her experience while photographing Central State as well as the history around the hospital. 

Whitehead credits Dr. Greg Jarvie, a deceased psychology professor from GC, with inspiring her to start researching the hospital’s history. 

“For all of the almost 30 years that I knew him, we talked about mental health treatments and facilities,” Whitehead said.

Jarvie encouraged her to learn more about Central State, and she sought to do the history justice with the “Seeking Asylum” project, though she never imagined that it would become this big. 

Because of this hospital’s history with mental health, it was important to Whitehead that this project shines a light on mental health.

”The goals of the project are pretty multi-faceted, but one of the main goals is to continue destigmatizing people who have mental health issues,” Whitehead said. 

The stigmatism around mental health, though it has improved through the years, is still difficult for those struggling with mental health to get around, and this is an issue that has always been close to Whitehead’s heart. 

Choosing psychology as her major at GC was always about learning more about what she could do to improve the circumstances so many find themselves in. The “Seeking Asylum” project is Whitehead’s self-proclaimed “creative outlet” that has also proved to be so beneficial to continuing this dream. 

People from the state of Georgia, especially older generations, remember Central State purely as an “insane asylum,” and there have been many ghost stories told throughout the years regarding the hospital’s past and what was left behind. 

One afternoon when Whitehead was taking photographs, she got in her car to move to another area on the campus. While her car was in reverse, she saw a man that she thought to be a security officer in the rearview mirror and back-up camera. She grabbed her permits to show to the officer, and when she got out of the car, no one was there. 

Later, while doing more research about Central State, she stumbled across photos of the hospital, including some of male patients dressed like the one she saw behind her car. Whitehead also said that this experience did not deter her from continuing to visit Central State, and whatever presence was there was not threatening. 

Jessica Whitehead is also opening an online store with merchandise featuring some of her favorite pictures on sweatshirts, t-shirts, stickers and other knick-knacks. Out of the profits Whitehead makes from book and merchandise sales, she will make regular donations to The Depot in the hopes that the Heritage Center there will reopen one day. People will be able to learn more about Central State Hospital, and donations will be accepted at the exhibit to be used for repair of the water damage at the Brown-Stetson-Sanford House.