The 12 Most Horrible Mental Health Treatments in History

Horrible mental health treatments from history

We are lucky to live in a time when mental health is taken seriously by most, and there are scientifically backed treatments available to patients. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. Throughout time, mental illness has perplexed scientists and doctors, which has led to strange and even dangerous asylum treatments.

Here are 12 of the most horrible old mental health treatments throughout history.

12 Horrible Asylum Treatments Throughout Time

These old mental health treatments will shock you:

1. Religion and Moral Discipline

While there has always been sympathy and understanding for those with physical illnesses, mental illness treatments in the 1800s were not nearly as sympathetic.

In the 18th century, doctors believed that mental health conditions occurred primarily for two reasons: the person was possessed by an evil spirit, or they were simply immoral. Both problems, theoretically, could be cured with religious and moral guidance.

To help individuals who were suffering from mental illnesses, doctors would try hospitalization, isolation and conversations about the individual’s “immoral beliefs.”

2. Lobotomy

Lobotomy is a surgical procedure meant to cure psychiatric disorders. The surgery looks to sever connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex to cure a person’s condition and alter their behavior.

The procedure was created by Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. However, lobotomy was always controversial due to its inconsistent, risky results. Many patients’s behavior, personality, cognition and motor skills would be permanently altered after the surgery.

3. Bloodletting and purging

Bloodletting and purging is an ancient form of treatment that regained popularity in the 1600s. Ancient Greek physician Claudius Galen wrote that all diseases and illnesses came from an imbalance of humors (substances) in the body. He theorized that bloodletting, purging and vomiting could help to rebalance the humors in the body and treat both physical and mental diseases.

In the 1600s, English physician Thomas Willis came across Galen’s theory and decided to use this approach for mental health patients. He started to use these treatments on the mentally ill, and it grew in popularity until it was prescribed for physical illnesses as well.

4. Straitjackets

Some old insane asylum treatments have endured into popular culture. The straitjacket is made so that a person’s arms are restrained firmly against their body. The restraints were designed so the patient might be kept calm and encouraged to “behave correctly,” but results were questionable.

5. Trephination

Trephination is one of the oldest mental health treatments in history, dating back to over 7,000 years ago. The procedure involved opening a hole in the skull with a bore, augur or saw and removing a piece of the skull.

It’s believed this procedure was performed to cure headaches, treat mental illnesses and even quell demonic possession. Doctors under Hippocrates in the fifth century BCE believed stagnant blood in the head could “spoil” and needed to be released, though patients rarely survived the process or the infections that set in after.

6. Insulin Coma Therapy

In the 1930s, a new approach to mental health treatment took the psychiatry world by storm. Doctors began to believe that dramatically changing insulin levels could “rewire” the brain and cure mental illness. The patient would receive drastic injections of insulin, which induced an approximately hour-long coma.

Though initial feedback was overwhelmingly positive, long-term effects included obesity and permanent brain damage with a significant fatality rate.

7. Fever Therapy

In the 1800s, Austrian psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Jauregg started inducing fevers to cure people of symptoms from other conditions. He started by giving a syphilis patient with malaria-infected blood. The patient developed an extremely high fever, which worked to kill the syphilis bacteria, and then was administered a drug to attack the malaria. This type of treatment was a popular way to treat malaria until the introduction of penicillin.

But Wagner-Jauregg didn’t stop there. He decided to expand this theory into the world of mental health and tried infecting schizophrenia patients with malaria blood. Of course, not only was this not effective, it was incredibly dangerous. Approximately 15% of patients who were given the malaria treatment died.

8. Isolation and Asylums

Asylums have a history dating back to medieval times, with the aim of removing people with mental health diseases and learning disabilities from society.

Individuals with mental health conditions were placed into asylums, often against their will. Though the story was that these people were sent to asylums to be treated, it was often so families could hide relatives they were embarrassed by. In fact, in 1941, the royal family sent two first cousins of Queen Elizabeth to an asylum for having learning disabilities.

9. Metrazol Shock Therapy

In 1934, Hungarian pathologist Ladislas von Meduna came up with the idea of shock therapy. Since schizophrenia was rare in epileptics, and people with epilepsy often feel better after a seizure, he theorized inducing a seizure in a schizophrenic would help calm them.

Meduna chose metrazol to be his seizure-inducing drug of choice. The treatment did not work, however, and was quite dangerous. In 1939, it was found that 43% of people who went through metrazol shock therapy suffered a fracture in their vertebrae.

10. Rotational Therapy

American physician Benjamin Rush, who signed of the Declaration of Independence, would probably prefer to be remembered in history that way. Instead, many know him for his attempt to use rotational therapy to cure mental illness. Rush believed that spinning could increase the circulation in the brain and, therefore, cure mental diseases.

Unsurprisingly, spinning patients around had no impact on their mental health.

11. Hysteria Therapy

When a woman had a mental or physical problem, it was often diagnosed as hysteria. This vague diagnosis could cover fatigue, nausea, anxiety and a host of other symptoms, but it was most often used to disregard a woman’s mental health and well-being.

Doctors would often prescribe massages, a popular panacea of the time, to treat hysteria. Mechanical vibrators — the predecessor to the sex toy — could be used by doctors or patients to relax muscles in the back and shoulders.

12. Drugs

While the drugs used today for mental health conditions are tested and safe, that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history, doctors have used dangerous and addictive drugs to treat mental health conditions. The highly toxic mercury was used to treat mania, and opium and morphine were regarded as cure-alls.

Mental Health Treatment Has Come a Long Way

Despite it all, mental health care has progressed a lot over the last few centuries. The methods used today are tested, reliable and safe. Every year, exciting new breakthroughs advance therapy and medications, making treatments ever safer and more comfortable.

Consider Restore Mental Health for your mental health journey. Our dedicated staff is experienced and our programs are versatile, so you can find the care that works best for you. A better life is within reach — find out how we can help you today.