I haven’t touched much on the crossroads where genealogy and mental health/illness meet. If you have a family member who was institutionalized in a mental health facility, insane asylum, etc., you quickly discover how difficult it is to find out more about why they were there. Another factor is the unwillingness of family or individuals to admit to being a guest of a state hospital or even having a mental health condition. I was 35 before I learned of a close relative’s schizophrenia.
A common axiom in genealogy is “There is no privacy after death.” This is only partly true. In some states, only family members can access BMD (Birth, Marriage, Death) records after a loved one dies. Where this axiom falls flat is medical records in general and mental health records specifically. Medical records privacy laws put medical records under lock and key for a long time after a person dies. Usually longer than the government requires the records to be kept.
To compound the problem, in many cases state hospital employees have done things to patients they prefer didn’t see the light of day. Thankfully, these are less common than decades ago, but they still happen. Here’s one example from 2012. Here’s an older example: Eastern State Hospital (ESH). According to records, 2,000 burials were recorded in its cemetery, but a project to document the cemetery has uncovered over 4,000 burials with the possibility of reaching 7,000 once the project is completed. ESH is a typical example of what happens to those patients who die at a state hospital. They usually get put in unmarked graves.
Topeka State Hospital (TSH) in Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas is slightly better in this regard. They have records here. If you type in a name, you can find Name, Register #, Death Date, Burial Date, Row, Grave, Location (in feet and inches from the eastern row marker west to the grave), and Notes (if any). Out of 1,1,57 known burials, about 19 were marked with headstones. A few years ago a push to get two granite markers inscribed with their names succeeded. You can view photos of the two markers on Find-A-Grave and a good aerial view on BillionGraves (GPS of two markers – 39.06752, -95.70787). TSH closed in 1997, but the cemetery remains. In an unknown number of cases, the cremains of patients are in limbo where they died. Oregon State Hospital holds the cremains of over 3,400 patients.
I am not trying to discourage people from looking if they have family members who were guests of a state institution, but letting them know it’s probably going to be a big challenge finding out more information about them. In my next post, I will link to a case where a patient kept a diary and that was a big help.