Historical Treatment Options for Depression

People have been struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders for at least as long as recorded history. Before the so-called “Prozac moment,” when antidepressants emerged as the standard of care in the 1980s, treatment options for depression were very different then they are today. Here are few of the most popular methods for treating depression in past periods in history.

Depression Medications

The 1980s marked a huge shift in mental health, particularly for depression. With the invention of the antidepressant Prozac, people finally had a way to lift away the gray mist depressant cast around them. As monumental 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, both physical and psychological, not just for depression.

Here are some of the most common medicines historically used for depression:
  • Opium: 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.
  • 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 substances such as hashish.
  • Henbane and Thorn Apple: It was the ancient Egyptians that used these two herbs to help treat a variety of disorders.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol has a long history of being the go-to treatment option for lots of injuries and disorders. It’s actually been the most recommended treatment option for melancholy up until the first half of the 20th century. Many people today still self-medicate with alcohol to help cope with depression.
  • Other common treatments were poppy, mandrake, hypericum oil, caffeine, cannabis, milk and barley mixtures. Eventually, substances like bromide (1826), codeine (1832), chloral hydrate (1869), paraldehyde (1882), and barbiturates were discovered and used.

Depression Therapies

Up until relatively recently, there were no dedicated mental health professionals like psychiatrists or psychotherapists. Most patients went to local doctors, healers, or apothecaries. In some cultures, afflicted patients 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 had more modern and humane mental hospitals, in cultural centers like Baghdad, 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 therapy people think of most when talking about historical treatment options for depression. 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 willingly chose 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 historically as well, in the forms of 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.


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


Existing patients, please text 561-409-7296 for follow-up appointment requests or if you have medication concerns please text 561-409-7296.