This story out of Connecticut is more than a little bizarre.
The state mental health commissioner is fighting efforts by freedom of information advocates to undo a law — which they say passed under last-minute, “murky circumstances” in 2011 — that blocks historians’ research into Civil War soldiers afflicted with what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the state FOI Commission and the Connecticut State Library all gave legislative testimony this past week in favor of H.B. 5124, a bill that would change the law so that medical and mental-health records could be released 50 years after the death of the person involved.
History professor Matthew Warshauer of Central Connecticut State University also testified and said that the state’s position is frustrating valuable historical research into the treatment of veterans a century before the term PTSD was invented to describe the lingering results of wartime trauma.
Warshauer and his students have fought in recent years for access to state mental hospital records of Civil War veterans. They prevailed in a 2010 case at the FOI Commission, which ordered release of the records. But the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) fought back in a different way, persuading legislative leaders to tuck the current prohibition into a 98-section public health bill in the 2011 end-of-legislative-session rush.
Why the sensitivity about Civil War-era medical records, you ask?
Rehmer said in her testimony: “Though the individuals … are deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed.”
…Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., said, “While historical accounts of what treatment entailed fifty years ago would be valuable to the public — releasing the names of individuals involved with psychiatric services will result in discrimination against their relatives.”
Historians shouldn’t be allowed to access the mental health records of Civil War soldiers because it will result in discrimination against their relatives? Can anybody out there actually imagine a scenario where that would be possible? Is somebody going to get turned down on a job application because his great-great-grandfather developed PTSD after the Overland Campaign?
Look, I think we can all agree that people’s health records should be kept private for a good, long while after their death. But in this case we’re talking about a span of multiple generations. Indeed, many Americans do not even know the names of their Civil War ancestors, let alone harbor any sensitivity over those ancestors’ mental state.
Is fifty years after someone’s death too soon to open their private records to the public? Maybe, maybe not. But I dare say that a century is quite enough water under the bridge. Amend the legislation accordingly and open those files.