Insane asylums and family research

April 10, 2012

Chances are good you’ll eventually find an ancestor or two who was committed to an insane asylum. While this is important information in regards to the mental health of family in your generation, it’s not always something you want to make known. This is one decision you must make on whether to publish a history of mental illness in the family or keep it quiet.

Insane asylum

You will likely learn of an insane relative while you are gathering family stories. Especially by the family “gossip.” Every family has one of these. This person loves to tell the history of the family-both good and bad. The possibility to find this information also exists in the last will and testament file on record at the courthouse where the person has died. I’ve even found family letters in these files, which are located in the Probate office.

 It’s important to understand how mental illness was viewed in generations past and the advancements made in treating the mentally ill.

In the late middle ages the mentally ill were taken off of the streets and put into dirty, filthy facilities that house the “insane.” The mentally ill of that era were to be feared. They were often placed in chains before being thrown into dark rooms.

Paris, France began a treatment in 1792 that changed the way the insane were treated. The chains were removed and the patients were placed into bright, cheerful rooms. Many were soon well enough to rejoin society.

There are many reasons an ancestor may have been institutionalized. Keep in mind those committed were believed to be a danger to themselves or to others. Listed below are some of the conditions people were admitted for.

*General paralysis. The physical symptoms on records I’ve research sound much like a stroke and many affect those as young as 35 years of age. Hallucinations and delirium are two of the reasons that will be stated on the commitment paperwork. Many believe they are rich and own incredible amounts of property.

*Alzheimer’s wasn’t diagnosed as an illness until the last century. Many patients admitted with Alzheimer-type symptoms were as young as 45 years of age. They were diagnosed with acute mania.

*Senility was a common reason to have a family member committed. There were no nursing homes as we know them today. If a family decided they didn’t want the burden of an older family member who was losing touch with reality due to age, that person was committed to an insane asylum.

*Syphilis was discovered in 1905. This was a breakthrough as it showed a mental disease could have a physical cause. Still, many with syphilis ended up in insane asylums.

*Post partum depression. Many women slipped into “melancholy” after the birth of a child, especially if the child didn’t survive.

*PTSD(post traumatic stress disorder) was also a common reason men were committed to insane asylums. They had lived through the horrors of war. With no therapy programs or support groups, many were committed with acute mania.

*Alcohol or drug(opium, heroin)abuse. This may or may not have been an issue caused by PTSD.

It’s important to document any commitment records you may find. Most online sites you choose to upload your GEDCOM file to have an option on whether to post or keep private notes on a person secret. As a researcher, it’s up to you to determine whether this information should be made public.

Personally, I have commitment papers on one ancestor. I found her papers in the same folder as her last will and testament. I haven’t included her mental history on my genealogy websites. I’ve come to the conclusion my ancestor was suffering from senility. She spent four years in an asylum then returned home. Since I’ve never spoken to any family member on her line, I don’t know whether she had recovered or if the family brought her home to spend time with her before her death. She died not long after her release.

I hope this article has broadened your view of why people were institutionalized. Most them weren’t crazy. They simply suffered from diseases where no treatment had been developed. Strokes, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, senility and postpartum depression all have medicinal treatments today that was unheard of a hundred years ago.

The moral of this article is not to judge an ancestor as insane because they spent time in an asylum.



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