Scenario: 1930-40's UK. A new mother "Mary" (fake name) was institutionalised in an "asylum" for what the records state to be "postnatal depression". The records frustratingly do not elaborate further.

We have no further documentation regarding this person other than a death certificate which indicates her date of death to be more than 40 years later at the same location (the place is still operational as an apparently respected mental health / psychiatric health hospital). I'm deliberately being vague about dates and locations for privacy reasons.

We have no evidence that Mary was ever released at any point during her prolonged "stay" at this place.

Our family NEVER mentioned Mary under any circumstances, this leads me to think that her residence was not voluntary and was considered a shameful thing among the family. Her children were raised by other family members and thereby I am fortunate to exist :). Only since my more recent elderly relatives passed away was the veil of secrecy removed and hence I came to know about all this.

Basically the only information I have to go on are a self-researched family tree going back a few generations before Mary, including dates, addresses and so on.

My question:

This person is one of my ancestors and I want to know more about what happened to her. Given the circumstances, do I have any avenues of investigation at my disposal to find out more about why and how Mary was institutionalised?

I fear that too much time has elapsed and also that such medical information is probably protected, but I'm not certain of this.

We have already successfully gone through the process of claiming her negligible "estate" through solicitors and so we can therefore prove our familial connection with her 100%.

If there is nothing we can do to find out more, then I'd really like to hear a medical professional's opinion on this story. Is what happened to Mary something that happened often in that time period?

Why would a diagnosis of Postnatal Depression lead to 40+ years of involuntary detention?

Did the wars have something to do with how such institutions operated?

  • 2
    Hi & welcome to Genealogy & Family History SE! Great question. So we know what you've tried already, would you mind clarifying what are the records you mention in the first line?
    – Harry V.
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 23:43
  • My grandmother went through exactly the same thing. She was institutionalised for 35 years until her death in 1975
    – Suzy C
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 12:11

2 Answers 2


I fear you are dealing with a vary awkward time-frame -- so recent that privacy concerns will deny you access to the records, and before the NHS was created so the relevant medical records may not even exist any more.

In addition, being a blood relative does not grant an individual access to a deceased individual’s health records. Requests are dealt with under the Access to Health Records Act (1990) and under the terms of the Act, you will only be able to access the deceased’s health records if you hold legal status as Personal Representative of the deceased or have a claim arising out of the individuals death.


"Postnatal Depression" as you call it is probably "Postpartum Depression", the term we now use. It happens shortly after and can continue for a long time after giving birth. The severity can range from mild to extreme as with any other mental health diagnoses. Postpartum Depression, sadly, still has a stigma attached to it as a new mother should be ecstatic having just given birth and cannot make sense of how/why she is struggling. Unfortunately hormone levels can go haywire and wreak havoc on the mother despite the "blessed event". We now have an entire arsenal of pharmaceuticals to help with this diagnosis...but not so back then. I hope this helps with the diagnosis and why it happened and still happens to this day. It is possible that she already had an underlying undiagnosed history of depression and this event just pushed her over the edge.

Kathy C.

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