Discovering Mental Illness In Your Family Tree

People are generally reluctant to discuss the less desirable aspects of family history. This is particularly true when it comes to mental illness. First of all, the topic is incredibly complex, and most of us do not fully understand the ins and outs of mental health. Secondly, we fear the genetic implications of mental illness. Will I inherit my ancestor’s disorder? Will my children? This post discusses the discovery of mental illness in my family tree and how that can help you.

Leo Ivan Lundquist (1895-1975)

Leo Ivan Lundquist, my first cousin twice removed, was born on December 4, 1895. Leo was the second son of Emanuel Richard Lundquist, who immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in 1881.

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Leo Ivan Lundquist (seated child), About 1897

I was first drawn to Leo after examining his draft registration card from World War I.

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World War I Draft Registration Card (June 5, 1917)

As you can see, the Registrar lists Leo as “insane” and specifies that as an exemption from the draft.

After digging a little deeper into Leo’s history, I found a very interesting census record from 1920.

1920 Census
1920 Census Record

According to the record, Leo was a patient of the Utah State Mental Hospital in Provo, Utah. He was approximately 24 years old at the time.

Utah State Mental Hospital

Originally called the Territorial Insane Asylum, the Utah State Mental Hospital opened its doors in 1885. Early documents describe the hospital as being eight blocks from the nearest residence in Provo and separated from the city by swampland and the city dump. The Asylum was renamed the Utah State Mental Hospital in 1903. In 1927, it adopted its current name, the Utah State Hospital, in an attempt to lessen the negative connotation associated with the word “mental.”

UtahStateMentHosp3
The Utah State Mental Hospital (Provo, Utah)

Attitudes Toward Mental Illness

Mental illness was highly misunderstood in the 1920’s (arguably, it is still misunderstood). Our ancestors probably used the words “insane” or “idiot” quite differently than we do today. An individual was sometimes labeled “insane” if he behaved in a way that society could not comprehend (e.g., he suffered from anxiety or depression). In addition, asylums were sometimes known to house individuals who were not mentally ill – the elderly, for example, or those with untreatable conditions such as epilepsy.

By today’s standards, many of the “treatments” performed on patients were archaic and cruel. During the 1930’s, frontal lobotomies were quite common. In fact, early medications designed for the treatment of mental illness were not developed until the 1950’s. The 1950’s also saw a shift in attitudes toward the mentally ill. Treatment generally transitioned from institutional care to community-based care.

Leo’s Move To Wyoming

The 1930 census provided more details on Leo’s life. According to the record, Leo had moved to the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Sheridan County, Wyoming. Again, Leo is listed as an “insane patient,” but something more interesting stands out. Under the “Occupation” column, Leo is described as a “Clerk.” This leads me to believe that although considered “insane” in 1930, Leo was able to perform basic job responsibilities. Also, I discovered that Leo was a veteran. Eventually, I learned that he enlisted in the U.S. military on February 23, 1915 and was released on September 28, 1916. It is very possible that his condition is directly connected to something that occurred while serving in the military.

1930 Census
1930 Census Record

Research Tips

Researching a mentally ill ancestor can be quite challenging. First of all, family members may be reluctant to talk about that individual. Secondly, source documents may be hard to find, and there may be privacy law restrictions if your ancestor was in a mental institution. Here are some tips to overcome these hurdles:

  1. A court proceeding may have been held before your ancestor was institutionalized. Search court records for more information on the nature of your ancestor’s condition.
  2. Your ancestor’s death record may list the informant as someone who worked at the mental institution. This can at least inform you as to where your ancestor was living.
  3. If you know where your ancestor was hospitalized, try to contact that institution for any available records. Again, privacy laws may come into play, and some hospitals do not release really old records as they are considered closed. I recently contacted the Utah State Hospital and am hoping to receive a response soon.
  4. Look for nontraditional records, such as social history sources, newspaper articles, or articles on the particular institution where your ancestor was housed.
  5. Don’t necessarily equate the word “insane” with mentally ill. It may be that your ancestor was merely eccentric or misunderstood by his community. Dive deeper into records to learn the true nature of his condition.

Above all, persistence is the key. Learning about our mentally ill ancestors is extremely important because it allows us to understand the hardships they endured. And family history is just like any kind of history – it reports the good and the bad, and our mentally ill ancestors deserve to be a part of it.

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