Historical Treatment Options for Depression

With all the focus and attention that mental health is getting currently, some people may be surprised to find that mental health issues are nothing new. People have been struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental disorders throughout history. Before antidepressants really boomed in the 1980’s, depression treatment options were very different then today.

Here are few of the most popular methods depression has been treated with throughout history.

Depression Treatment Medications

The 1980’s marked a huge shift in mental health, particularly in depression. With the invention of the antidepressant Prozac, people finally had a way to lift away the gray mist depressant cast around them. As huge as this was, it poses the question of what medication people used before.

There’s actually a long history of plant-based remedies that were used to treat depression. Each culture found local plants that they turned into medications. Unlike current antidepressants, these medicines were used to treat a wide variety of ailments, not just depression, such as coughs and fevers.


Here are some of the most common plant-based medicines that were used in history:

  • Opium Poppy: Opium, derived from the poppy plant, has been used in various forms to treat depression (and many other ailments) as early as 3rd millennium BC. It was known as the “Plant of Joy” as it enhanced the feeling of well-being.
  • Atropa Belladonna: Belladonna comes from the deadly plant, nightshade. In small doses, it has a calming effect and can stabilize the nervous system. It was sometimes mixed with other plants such as hashish.
  • Henbane and Thorn Apple: It was the ancient Egyptians that used these two herbs to help treat disorders.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol has a long history of being the go-to treatment option for a ton of injuries and disorders. It’s actually been the most recommended treatment option for melancholy up until the first half of this century. Many people today still self-medicate with alcohol to help cope with depression.
  • Other common treatments were poppy, Mandrake, hypericum oil, caffeine, cannabis and milk and barley mixtures. Eventually, substances like bromide (1826), codeine (1832), chloral hydrate (1869), paraldehyde (1882), and barbiturates were discovered and used.


Depression Therapy

There weren’t “psychiatrists” or “therapist” like there are now back in the day. Most patients went to local doctors, healers, or apothecaries. At some points, cultures turned to religion or magic for healing. Eventually, institutions were created for those suffering from mental disorders.

During the 14th century, so-called “madhouses” were created to treat the mentally ill. These were poorly run and looked more like dungeons than hospitals. The Middle East, has more modern and humane mental hospitals, originally just in Baghdad, but others sprung up in Damascus, Fez, and Cairo. The stereotypical images of mental hospitals were born out of this time, and the chains used to manacle patients took over 100 years to be banned.

As tangible advances were made with pharmaceuticals in the 19th century, therapy also progressed. Psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and behavioral therapy were developed and implemented.

Electroconvulsive therapy is probably the type of treatment for depression people think of most when talking about historical treatment options. While it has been criticized for being cruel, harsh, and painful, it was the beginning for major advances. Many patients were initially forced to undergo such treatment if they were admitted to a mental institute. Eventually, the technology developed enough that some people with severe depression were willing choosing to undergo the process. Today, the procedure has been advanced so that it is safer, completely painless, and more effective.


Other Depression Treatments

Even today, psychiatrists recommend individuals suffering from depression to focus on self-love, self-happiness, and self-acceptance. People are encouraged to do activities and hobbies that bring them joy. There’s actually a historical precedent for this. Joyful and relaxing activities have historically been used to treat depression.

The Ancient Greek and Romans would use music, dancing, and acting as forms of therapy. Work, entertainment, and other forms of distractions were used too. They also performed cathartic temple massages. Physiotherapy was used in history too, with baths, massages, and gymnastics recommended to help depression.

Arabic doctors used their profound knowledge of science and medicine to treat those with mental ailments. They tried to cheer and encourage patients to read, play or listen to music, and even used sexual stimulation.



The historical treatment options for depression weren’t the best, but communities did well with what resources and information they had. Without the long history, the current modern treatments in medication and therapy psychiatrists’ use today may not exist. Still, we should be thankful that we live in a time where mental health is at the forefront of discussions and where there are tons of treatment options available to people with mental health issues.

Thankfully, we offer only the most innovative and modern treatment options at Delray Beach Psychiatrist. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you with your depression.

Dr. Raul J. Rodriguez

Dr. Raul Rodriguez