5 Shocking Mental Health Treatments From the Past

shocking mental health treatments

Though often left out of textbooks and lectures, history is filled with innumerable events and activities ranging from the improbable to the downright weird. From Catherine the Great’s alleged affair with one of her horses to the dung beetle charms worn by the ancient Egyptians, human behavior hasn’t always been what we have come to expect. And when individuals broke from normalcy, perhaps due to being afflicted with mental illnesses, they were often subjected to various “treatments” with the aim of alleviating their afflictions. In many cases however, these remedies were often weird enough to make bedding a horse seem like a perfectly natural thing to do.

1. Trephining, or, “Drilling Into Your Skull Since 6500 BC”

Archaeological evidence suggests that as early as 6500 BC, a common medical practice was to chip or drill a hole into the human skull. This treatment– known as trephining – was carried out in order to relieve mental disorders, seizures and other ailments. The underlying reason for using this technique, however, was by no means grounded in the rigorous study of medicine; early humans simply believed that mental illnesses were a consequence of supernatural occurrences, such as the wrath of an angry deity or possession by an evil spirit. Drilling a hole into the skull was said to provide an opening where the evil entity could escape, thus making afflicted persons healthy and mentally stable once more.

What’s interesting about this method is that it did work to an extent, though not for the reasons these prehistoric therapists believed. Researchers say that the hole would have relieved pressure on the brain, resulting in noticeable behavioral improvement. While early trephining methods were crude, some skulls have shown signs of healing, suggesting that quite a few individuals lived long after treatment.

This method continued to be used for centuries, and special tools such as skull saws and drills were developed for the purpose of relieving migraines, fractures and mental disorders — all by cracking open the skull.

2. Attending Concerts and Dancing to Hot Tunes

History tells us that the ancient Egyptians made leaps and bounds in the medical field with emphasis on surgery, bone-setting and pharmacology. Historical documents also suggest that they were among the first people to recognize the brain as the site of cognitive function.

The ancient Egyptians believed that one of the best ways to treat afflicted individuals was to have them participate in the arts — namely painting, having concerts, dancing and playing music. Art therapy is still widely used to treat various types of mental illnesses today and this fact testifies to the effectiveness of this ancient method of treatment. For ailing patients, art therapy was undoubtedly more reassuring than the prospect of having a hole drilled into the skull.

Despite their innovation however, the ancient Egyptians were not entirely free of the mythical beliefs of early man. For them, mental illnesses were the observable consequences of supernatural events.

3. Draining the Disorder Away

Sooner or later, someone had to challenge the belief that mental illness had supernatural causes and we can thank Hippocrates for that. He viewed the brain as the seat of human emotion, intelligence, wisdom and consciousness, and reasoned that any problems with these functions would logically be located in the brain itself. To Hippocrates however, the pathology of the brain was directly due to an imbalance of what he considered to be the four primary bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. In order to “balance” the levels of these fluids, individuals with mental disorders were often subjected to induced vomiting, laxatives, leeching and bloodletting.

4. Chants, Charms, Drugs and Exorcisms

In the middle ages, astrologers, apothecaries, physicians and healers would utilize various religious, astronomical and mystical methods in an effort to relieve individuals of their mental illnesses. The Church was very influential at the time and exorcisms were a common treatment, as it was once again believed that mental illnesses could possibly be the result of demonic possession. However, other mystical treatments such as wearing astrological talismans, charms and amulets while reciting prayers were available to the mentally stricken masses — as were powerful sedatives such as opium.

5. Animal Magnetism

18th century Austrian physician Franz Mesmer claimed that the human body contained a magnetic fluid whose properties could be altered by the position of the planets. According to his theory of Mesmerism, the distribution of these fluids had a direct impact on one’s mental state — with a proper distribution being present in normal people and an improper or unbalanced distribution being present in the mentally ill. He believed that humans had the ability to influence and control this distribution, something he referred to as animal magnetism. In 1778, Mesmer opened a clinic where his patients would sit around a chemical-filled oak tub (called a baquet) with protruding iron rods which would come in contact with the “unbalanced” parts of the body. He would then walk around the room in colorful cloaks, touching his patients with his hand or a wand, or giving them long intense looks in an attempt to cure them. Needless to say, he was later branded as a fraud by his medical peers in Vienna (Austria), Paris (France) and again by a special commission which included the highly esteemed Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin.


Cindy Lawson is a family counselor and guest contributor at Best Masters in Counseling, a site dedicated to providing information on getting a Masters degree in Counseling.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net