Are Mental Health Issues Inherited?

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Hmm. Just mulling this topic.

I have at least one specific line where I’ve been able to document mental illness in my family tree. I don’t know if it is genetic or just coincidence. I also don’t know if this can be attributed to the females or if it might be explained simply as postpartum depression or general depression. I’m keeping an open mind. But there have been too many (co)incidences for me to ignore the implications.

My 3rd great grandmother, Julia Chamberlain Maxwell, lived in the wrong time and place, and I’ve sent her my love from earth many times since I’ve come to learn more about her. One day, I’m going to wrap my arms around her and tell her I wish her final days had been filled with happiness rather than despair. You might be wondering how on earth I know of her condition? Luck. Pure luck.

When I first started researching my Maxwell line, I started with the logical steps: ordering vital records. I was able to get William’s, but Julia’s was not available for Polk or St. Croix counties in Wisconsin. I was a novice at genealogy then, but I knew enough to follow my intuition and dig. The last known census record for her was in 1870, and according to that census, she was still living at home with her husband and all but two of her children. I also found a Julia Maxwell of the same age and birth place in 1870 living in Madison (Dane County). Was it the same person? And why would this happen?

After poking and digging, I found a death record in 1876 for a Julia A. Maxwell in Dane County whose birth date and place fit my Julia. If she was, in fact, MY Julia, why was she in Madison when her family was 250 miles to the northwest? I decided to order it, thinking that the $15 was going to tell me if I had the right person and that it was the easiest way to rule her in or out. Surprisingly, it revealed that I had the right person. Like her husband, there were no parents identified. As I started to read it, I nearly fell out of my chair. The death record indicated she had died of mental exhaustion at the Mendota State Hospital for the Insane. To say I was flabbergasted and intrigued would be a gross understatement. Where to go from here? I later surmised that it’s possible William thought she would return home at some point by listing her in the household in 1870.

About this time in my research, I ponied up for a subscription to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Through some more digging, I discovered that the hospital was now incorporated into the University of Wisconsin health system in Madison, and that the historical society held whatever old records that were left. I wrote a note to them explaining what I was seeking and waited for a response. I wasn’t expecting much, but the outcome was far better than I imagined. I received a response the next day and the clerk told me that Julia Maxwell was one of the earliest patients at the hospital AND that her admission record was one of the very few that had survived. I purchased the record and waited anxiously for it. It was far more emotional than I had anticipated, and it made me feel a level of compassion for her that took me by surprise.

The admission record was handwritten by her husband, my 3rd great grandfather. His explanation of why he was having his wife committed to a mental institution was filled with anguish, and I could feel his pain. The admission record was basically a questionnaire. He answered the questions honestly. It wasn’t easy to read.

Note for those of us living in the 21st century: this account–without her input–would not be a remotely legal consideration for even a 5150 hold. It only took 3 pages to have her sent to a hospital where he *had* to know he would never see her again. I don’t know that he didn’t visit, but 250 miles on horseback for this purpose seems unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely. I think it’s true because had he visited her, he would have been able to supply the names of her parents, her date of birth and made arrangements for her body to return home for burial close to her family. That makes me profoundly sad for her. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.

I won’t share the copy of that admission record, but I will share with you some of the things I learned from it:

  1. The completed questionnaire was signed by William W. Maxwell on 10 July 1869. Side note: this is 6 days after their two oldest daughters were married to the youngest Hale brothers in a double wedding. I sure as heck hope she was able to witness the event. Yet it makes me wonder if she made a scene? Could she have behaved in a manner that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back???
  2. Underneath William’s signature, he wrote “She is my wife”. I don’t know why that makes me so sad.
  3. The doctor’s certification of her mental condition listed his reason for wanting her to be sent to the asylum: religious excitement. It was certified by two doctors with a cancelled 5 cent stamp (of George Washington), and she was approved for admission on the 24th of July.
  4. The questionnaire was interesting, and if you took it at face value, you would think Julia was delusional and maybe insane by today’s standards. At the very least, if you saw her at the grocery store today, you’d avoid her at all costs. Apparently, in 1858, she saw the words “Great Amen” in “large bolden letters in the bushes”. She read the bible constantly, and when she read, she became agitated. She considered herself “the elect of God” and “the bride of the Lamb”. She read the bible so often it made her insane. [I know it’s probably not okay, but my dad and I laughed out loud at that statement.] William stated there was hardly any time she was rational.
  5. She had one instance where she tried to drown herself. She tried to injure her family members when “in a passion”. After the drowning attempt, they had to chain her to the bed to keep her from running away and probably to prevent her from hurting herself further.
  6. Religious fervor aside, I decided to look deeper into the timeline to see if I could dissect her underlying issue with the benefit of a degree in biology, my experience as a mother with a medically challenged child, and by being a post menopausal woman. THAT was more enlightening.
  7. William stated early on that her symptoms had really started the year before with “the turn of life”. He listed that she was a farmer’s wife and that she was the mother of 8 children, with the youngest being 6 years old. He also provided an almost overlooked detail that her mother experienced similar symptoms at the same age (48).

So… I decided to create her timeline.

She married William some time between 1840 and 1844. I can only account for 7 living children, so I’m guessing there was a stillbirth or an infant/toddler who died young. Their children, known and unknown:

  • Lavinia – born 1845 in New York
  • Unknown child – probably circa 1847
  • Mary – born 1850 in Wisconsin
  • Edward – born 1852 in Wisconsin
  • William – born 1855 in Wisconsin
  • Rosetta – born 1858 in Wisconsin
  • Minnie – born 1860 in Wisconsin
  • Ella – born 1863 in Wisconsin

By 1868, according to William’s responses, she was experiencing some sort of mental break.

Using my own experience after giving birth, it really didn’t take much to see that Julia may have had some difficulty with postpartum hormones. She might have just started to return to normal when she got pregnant again. It made me wonder what could happen under those circumstances, so I played medical sleuth from the comfort of my recliner. Google and I are really close friends, so I called on her. She didn’t disappoint.

In rare circumstances, untreated postpartum depression can become postpartum psychosis. I Googled it, and boy, the symptoms William described sounded a whole lot like that diagnosis. I decided to take it a step further, so I took her admission document to my next gynecology appointment. I shoved it in front of my doctor and asked for her medical opinion. She took less than two minutes to say, “I’d have to say she had postpartum psychosis”. I am not a doctor in real life, nor do I play one on TV. But I got this right.

I did ask what the treatment would be today and my doctor told me there were medications available. My poor 3rd great grandmother would have greatly benefited by being born in our time.

The story doesn’t end there.

I found two more instances in this family line that I can document, but I doubt there were just two. Unfortunately, I don’t have admission records for the other two women. Who’s to say what the underlying issues are, but I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the whole picture. Especially since I suffered from postpartum depression after both my girls were born.

My 2nd great grandmother, Lavinia Maxwell Hale, also suffered from some type of mental illness. She died in 1905 in an asylum in Monroe, Wisconsin. Monroe is almost 300 miles southeast of her home in Osceola. It took some digging for me to accept this. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to accept it, but like her mother, she is listed in two places in the 1900 census, which threw me off. Again. Ugh.

During my ancestral research journey, I developed a friendship with a woman who is from Minnesota but lives in Alaska and is researching these Maxwell people too. It turns out that she’s become a valuable research partner. She and I approach situations logically but differently. I have come to truly appreciate her insights. I’ll tell you our story some other day, because there is some divine intervention at work between us.

Anyway, one day she posed the question whether or not there was a genetic link for mental illness between Julia and Lavinia. I was a little incredulous and asked her what she was talking about? She said there was a Lavina Hale born in 1845 in NY in the 1900 census in Green County, Wisconsin. Since I found MY Lavinia enumerated in the household with her husband in Osceola in 1900, I told her there had to be another Lavina/Lavinia Hale out there. She wasn’t so sure, but we had no way to find out from our respective homes in Colorado and Alaska. Until I went to Wisconsin last October…

I was reviewing microfilm of the Polk County Press and decided to see if there was an obituary for Lavinia. Much to my surprise, there was. Bonus? It was informative and filled in some missing blanks. It was obviously written by her husband, because they were the words of a man who loved her and presented her in the most flattering light possible.

I discovered that she was born in Brockport, New York. I also discovered that she died in Monroe, Green County. Insert my frowny face emoticon. Duped by another wishful census record. Her obituary stated, “Mrs. Hale united with the Baptist church of Osceola, May 5th, 1877, of which she has been a member for 28 years, adorning her profession by a godly walk and conversation. She was baptized by Rev. Samuel T. Catlin, through whose benign influence and counsel she sought and found her savior, and altho clouds obscured her intellectual vision here for a few years.”

Unlike her mother, Lavinia did not have a death certificate. Unlike her mother, Lavinia’s husband brought her body back for burial in the family cemetery. She is buried in a family grave with her father and husband. Her tombstone is not a cenotaph.

Lavinia’s younger brother, Edward, was a veterinarian who married and had 10 children. One of Edward’s daughters, Mary Lucy Maxwell, died in a mental hospital in Fort Steilacoom, Washington. And like her grandmother, she is buried on the hospital grounds. Fort Steilacoom is a former military site; their medical records are closed and subject to current HIPAA laws. I have no way of finding out more about her condition.

I’m sure there are more people in my tree who have experienced some sort of mental illness. Whether they are merely part of our human condition or something that is genetic is beyond me. What I do pray for is that any human being–past or present–experiences compassion and kindness along the way.

Peace be with them and you.

Author: Betsey K.

Mother of two daughters, two Siamese cats and a 3 legged dog. Genealogy hack. Research nut. Search engine proficient. Daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece and ex-wife. And a person who strives for balance and peace.

3 thoughts on “Are Mental Health Issues Inherited?”

  1. What a sad story but wonderful in that you learned so much about your family. Mental Illness runs in so many families, including mine, and finding the causes helps us to understand. Thank you for sharing.


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