Addressing Mental Health in Family History

It’s Mental Health Awareness week in Ireland. Prompted by my recent review of a book about Grangegorman Mental Hospital, I’ve been re-reading my great-grandmother’s medical file.

Mary Bradley, née Lawless, spent the last 10 years of her life at the hospital following suicidal thoughts. She had been widowed young in her 50s with 4 children. Two were adults and two were teenagers. My grandfather was the third boy. He and his younger brother lived with their aunt for a time.

Richmond Lunatic Asylum (my own photo)

We didn’t know much about Mary before I started researching her and it was a shock to find that her death certificate showed her resident in the hospital in 1949. My aunt did have some vague idea that Mary had helped out there, but everyone alive then in the family was dead now. I did a tour of the site during Open House week in 2010, just as they were beginning the process to redevelop the campus into what would become the Grangegorman campus of TU Dublin. The guide gave me some advice on how to apply for my great-grandmother’s medical file using a Freedom of Information request. I was advised that the records were in the National Archives but not properly catalogued. They said it might take some time and they might refuse to give me them, as medical records are sealed for 100 years from the last entry. I also had to supply documentary proof that I am descended from her via birth, death and marriage records.

Happily, my request was granted and I received a 36 page file on Mary, which included a photograph of her. We had had other photos of her, it turned out, but not known it was she. Classic case of no one writing on the back of them.

On reading the file, I was prepared for all kinds of horrors, but it doesn’t appear my great-grandmother ever received anything like electro-shock therapy or other now debunked treatments. She was receiving vitamins for being underweight and talking therapy for melancholia – what we would today call depression.

The family’s third child died young. James William Lawless was born on 15th May 1912 and died on 20th December 1914. There was no family memory of this little boy when I found him – I’d always wondered about the big gap between two of my great uncles’ births so I just did a search and he turned up. He died when Tom was 3 months old and Leo was 5. My grandfather Michael and his younger brother, Liam, would never have known him. No doubt this terrible loss contributed to Mary’s mental health.

It does, however, appear that her sister also suffered from depression and this is noted on the paperwork admitting Mary.

The file also gave a lot of detail about what her sons were earning, as they had to prove what they could contribute to their mother’s upkeep, who was allowed to visit (which gained me the married names of some of Mary’s sisters) and where to call in the event of emergencies (the next door neighbour of my oldest great-uncle). This showed me that Mary was loved and her family didn’t just abandon her to an institution.

Inevitably, it also contained details about her death, which was from angina, a heart condition easily treated with medication today. There are telegrams informing the family of her death and then details of her funeral arrangements, the bills for it (including referencing relatives in a then-unknown location), and claims on a small insurance policy.

I don’t think we should shy away from looking at medical records for our ancestors when they’re available. This one gave enormous insight into a person who gave me 12.5% of my make-up. Sharing this information about Mary with the wider family was a rewarding experience for us all.

In writing this today, I was amazed to discover a coincidence. Today is the 85th anniversary of her admittance.

7 thoughts on “Addressing Mental Health in Family History

  1. I appreciate how you make clear all the insights you gained from obtaining your great-grandmother’s file: especially, being able to identify her in other (unidentified) photos your family already had, as well her sons’ earnings and neighbors’ contact info — filling out the story that your great-grandmother wasn’t simply abandoned to the institution.
    A good example for May Mental Health Awareness. Thank you for sharing your insights and process with us.

    1. Hi Niall,

      My understanding is that each case is assessed individually.
      The fact that he has no descendants and died 91 years ago might mean they’d give it to you.
      It’s certainly worth trying it.
      I will say that not all of the records are as detailed as others and couldn’t be sure that every one had a photo.

      Best regards,

  2. HI Claire,
    Thanks for an interesting, and eminently practical description of how to access these records.
    It’s always brave to reveal something of yourself in writing an article. You really humanised what might otherwise have been a difficult subject.
    Well done, I really enjoyed your blog, and must keep up with it.

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