Arkansas Health Center

The Arkansas Health Center (AHC), located in Benton (Saline County), is a 310-bed nursing facility licensed and regulated by the Office of Long Term Care. AHC is the largest nursing home—and the only state-operated nursing facility—in Arkansas. With more than 550 employees, AHC provides nursing home care to Arkansans with special medical and behavioral needs that are not generally met through traditional nursing facilities. AHC houses specialty units to treat individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, those with behavioral or psychiatric disorders, and those who are ventilator dependent for survival. AHC takes a holistic approach to healthcare, treating both the physical and psychiatric health concerns of the residents while also focusing on spiritual needs. Services available at AHC include medical and psychiatric care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, recreation services, laboratory and pharmacy services, social services, psychological services, dental services, food and nutrition services, and environmental services. AHC also serves as a clinical training site for several colleges, including the nursing program at College of the Ouachitas in Malvern (Hot Spring County) and Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri.

AHC was formerly a unit of the Arkansas State Hospital, which was established in 1873 and was called the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum. In 1917–1918, the daily population of the State Hospital averaged 1,970 patients, while the certified capacity was 1,964. As a result of a 1928 survey concerning overcrowding, the regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law in 1929 creating a state commission and authorized a bond issue to provide funds for new buildings. In 1929, land was purchased to construct the Arkansas State Hospital, Benton Unit, located on Highway 67 approximately five miles southwest of Benton.

In 1961, AHC was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1963, all African-American psychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.

In addition to operating specialty nursing home units, the AHC campus is home to a variety of programs such as the Birch Tree Program, Arkansas Department of Correction Benton Work Release Center, and Pathfinders Transitional Employment Center.

The Birch Tree Program, a private, nonprofit corporation that is part of the Arkansas public mental health system, focuses on the treatment and recovery process for persons with severe and persistent mental illness. The AHC branch of the Birch Tree Program serves approximately fifty members with a staff of forty-two. Members live either in twenty-four-hour supervised housing, semi-supervised housing, or independently in the community. The AHC branch employs several therapists, case managers, a program supervisor, and a nurse.

The Arkansas Department of Correction Benton Work Release Center provides inmates with the opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, educational treatment and rehabilitative programs. These programs are intended to enable inmates to re-enter the community. As of 2011, the Benton Work Release Center houses 325 inmates and has seventy-eight employees.

Pathfinders Transitional Employment Center is a private, non-profit, community-based organization that provides services for the disabled. Pathfinders has ten intensive care facilities for the mentally retarded (ICF/MR) housing 100 individuals; four supervised apartment complexes serving eighty individuals; two group homes serving twenty individuals; two apartment units serving twelve individuals; and four workshops serving approximately 600 individuals daily.

AHC was used as a filming site for the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the 1996 movie Sling Blade, which was written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also starred in the movie.

For additional information:
Arkansas Health Center. Division of Behavioral Health Services, Arkansas Department of Human Services. (accessed February 2, 2022).

Birch Tree Communities, Inc. (accessed February 2, 2022).

Hampton, Ashan R. “History of the Arkansas State Hospital.” Pulaski County Historical Review 43 (Spring 1995): 2–18.

Anna C. Crosby
Little Rock, Arkansas

Hillary R. Hunt
Little Rock, Arkansas