Scary Psychiatric Treatments Throughout History

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Today, a good deal is known about different mental illnesses and more is always being learned. Treatments for various mental illnesses are constantly evolving. Throughout history, the mentally ill were not always treated well, and in fact there is evidence that points to inhumane treatment of people suffering from psychiatric illnesses. While many of the treatments throughout history are today considered barbaric, some of them did pave the way for research into more modern and acceptable practices. Learn about some of the worst psychiatric treatments throughout history below.


Trepanation is thought to be one of the earliest treatments for the mentally ill. It involved using a tool to create a hole in the skull. The hole was made with various tools including a trepan, bore, auger, and at times even a saw. This procedure has been performed throughout history, and often resulted in serious injury and death. People were given this treatment because it was thought that insanity or mental illness was caused by demons. Creating a hole in the skull would allow these demons to escape. Trepanation was practiced even into the 20th century in many places around the world. It was eventually phased out as more appropriate treatment options were developed. While trepanation is no longer used medically, there are some people that still believe in the practice.

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The lobotomy was developed by a Portuguese doctor by the name of Egas Moniz. He believed that mental illness was caused by issues with neurons located in the frontal lobe of the brain, directly behind the forehead. Moniz thought that by cutting parts of the frontal lobe, he could cure mental illness while leaving the remainder of the patient’s mental function intact. After the procedure was introduced in the US and began to grow in popularity, it was discovered that there was a big issue. Lobotomies left patients in a zombie like state and they could barely respond to the world around them. Soon after, the treatment began to receive bad press and fell out of favor.

Treatments For Hysteria

At times throughout history, women that were suffering from any form of mental illness were considered to be actually suffering from hysteria. Hysteria was popularized by Hippocrates who believed that it had a range of conditions include fainting, nervousness, and muteness. It was believed that the cure for hysteria was to calm the uterus of a woman. Treatment included telling patients to marry and conceive children. It wasn’t until the 20th century that doctors began to realize that hysteria was not actually a condition and instead they began identifying the real conditions which included post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and various phobias.

Electroshock Therapy

Electroshock therapy is now known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. ECT is still used today and the procedure is done under anesthesia along with the use of a muscle relaxant but it wasn’t always that way. There is proof that inducing seizures to treat mental illness was done as early as the 16th century. Convulsive therapy was officially introduced in 1934 and within a few years was being used worldwide. Patients were normally subjected to ten to twenty treatments. Unfortunately the procedure could cause amnesia and confusion. Today, the procedure is considered much safer if administered by qualified professionals.

Chemically Induced Seizures

Ladislas von Meduna pioneered the development of seizure therapy. He thought that because schizophrenia was very rare in epileptics, that giving someone with schizophrenia seizures would help to make them better. He tested numerous drugs before finally choosing metrazol. While von Meduna claimed that the treatment led to a cure in his patients, he had many opponents that disagreed and considered the treatment to be dangerous. The side effects of chemically induced seizures made the procedure unpopular with both patients and doctors.

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Throughout history, there have been many psychiatric treatments that are today considered horrible. Oftentimes, if someone could not be treated, they were placed in an asylum where they could potentially remain for years. While some treatments of the past were downright barbaric, they did lead to the desire to understand more about what causes mental illness. The desire to understand mental illness further has led to great advances in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. New treatments and causes of illnesses are constantly being discovered and the research continues.

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About the Author: Ann Steele

This website is co-authored by Ann Steele, a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego with extensive experience with children and adolescents. Ann Steele attended American School Of Psychology & Argosy University Online. She especially enjoys using music therapy for mental and emotional well-being.

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