Mental health has come a long way, and if you don’t believe us, you surely will after reading this. A lot of the stigma around mental illness that lingers today comes from these odd and outlandish historical treatments. Some of these old psychiatric treatments were just ineffective, but others were downright cruel and painful. Thankfully, psychiatric treatment options have advanced by leaps and bounds, and we no longer have to rely on these strange and barbaric methods.
Trepanation is known as the oldest neurosurgical procedure in existence. The process involves drilling a hole into the skull. The craziest part is that archeologists have evidence of this procedure being done as long ago as the Stone Age, and in nearly every part of the world.
Records show it was used to treat cranial injuries sustained during war or combat, but it was also used to treat epilepsy and other forms of mental illness. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this procedure was believed to help “evil escape” and was tied to ideas of demonic possession as the cause for mental health disorders. Psychiatrists today are glad they don’t have to drill holes in skulls in order to get their patients some help!
Although he’s called the father of Western medicine, ancient Greek healer Hippocrates is also responsible for centuries of medical misogyny. He theorized that female psychiatric symptoms and issues were a result of “hysteria”, or the womb wandering through the body. We can laugh about how outlandish it sounds now, but hysteria diagnosis lasted well into the 20th century. The peak of hysteria was in the 19th Century, when countless women were diagnosed with the disorder, for everything from nonconformist behavior to seeking divorces from their husbands. Many of these healthy women were institutionalized in sanitariums and subjected to cruel psychiatric treatments for no reason.
Early treatments for hysteria included smelling foul substances, with the intention of repelling the uterus back to the lower regions of the body. Plato believed women should get married and bear children, as pregnancy would return the uterus to the right position. Later on, hysterical symptoms were attributed to demonic possession, which could lead to exorcisms or other spiritual cleansing treatments. Thankfully psychiatrists have a much better understanding of the female mind and body today.
The early 1770’s brought forth the notion of “animal magnetism”, later renamed “mesmerism” after the Austrian physician and theologian Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer. He believed that a number of ailments were caused by naturally occurring magnetic fields. Realignment was necessary to improve help.
Realignment happened by administering high-dose iron to patients, which was then guided through the body by magnets. Other variations had patients sitting in chemical-filled bathtubs with iron rods applied to the affected areas. Clearly, these psychiatric treatments weren’t effective, and it didn’t help that later on, Mesmer claimed to have magical powers. Although his work has since been debunked, Mesmer actually laid the groundwork for psychiatric hypnosis, which is still used today.
In the 19th century, there was a belief that using centrifugal force could treat mental illness. Essentially, it was believed that excessive spinning would reduce “brain congestion.” Special chairs were even invented for this treatment and it spread across Europe. There is very little chance these procedures actually had any medical benefits, but they’re still notable for providing the first ever description of G-force biomedical effects.
In the early 1900s, a man by the name of Henry Cotton, who was superintendent of the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton, had an interesting theory. He believed that mental illness was caused by bodily infections whose toxins poisoned the brain. He sought to remove these chronic infections at their source- by taking out patients teeth, tonsils, spleens, uteri, and other organs.
Cotton claimed cure rates of more than 80% but in reality, many of his procedures had mortality rates of about 45%. While his brutal methods are no longer used, his links between mental illness and inflammation are still being investigated. But thankfully, psychiatrists don’t have to act like dentists today.
About a decade after insulin was discovered, German physician Mandred Sakel began using it to treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal and then not long after schizophrenia. Insulin doses were so high that patients fell into a stupor or coma, making them more cooperative and free from their psychiatric symptoms.
It wasn’t long before this treatment caught on in the US, and was used alongside the popular electroconvulsive therapy. While mortality rate was high, and it mainly made people manageable rather than cure them, it was used for quite some time. Eventually, with the introduction of chlorpromazine (Thorazine), which was a cheaper, safer, and equally effective alternative, insulin shock therapy was phased out.
Psychiatrists today are glad they have a variety of safe and effective treatment options available for patients. While many of these historical treatments walk the line between hilarious and horrific, many of them laid the groundwork for psychiatrist treatments used today.