From Leeches to Lobotomies: 11 Crazy Mental Illness Treatments

vintage medical sketch of brain

The word psychiatry originates from the Medieval Latin psychiatria, meaning “healing of the soul.” Many societies have viewed mental illness as a form of divine punishment or demon possession.

This has led to some very strange and unsettling things that have been prescribed to heal mental illness throughout the ages, such as leeches, lobotomies, and even exorcism. The history of psychiatry is filled with weird treatments.

Some very strange and unsettling things that have been prescribed to heal mental illness throughout the ages, such as leeches, lobotomies, and even exorcism. Click To Tweet

In this blog, you’ll take a fascinating journey through the history of psychiatric treatments. Here are 11 of the craziest.


  1. Carving a Hole in Your Head

In ancient Indian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman writings, mental illness was often seen as a religious or personal failure.

As early as 6,500 BC, prehistoric skulls and cave art showed evidence of trepanation. This surgical procedure involved drilling or scraping a hole in the skull to release evil spirits thought to be trapped inside.

  1. Exorcism

By the Middle Ages, supernatural explanations of mental illnesses resurfaced in Europe in an attempt to explain natural disasters, such as plagues and famines. In the 13th century, mentally ill people, especially females, were treated as demon-possessed witches.

In the 16th century, Dutch physician Johann Weyer and Englishman Reginald Scot tried to persuade their populations that those accused of witchcraft were actually people with mental illnesses in need of help. However, the Catholic Church’s Inquisition banned their writings. In some cases, religious leaders attempted exorcisms to unleash the demons.

  1. Sterilization

In 1789, King George III of England descended into madness. This crisis triggered physicians at England’s insane asylums to begin looking into the inheritance patterns of mental illness.

Asylum directors started using family trees and surveys to study and track down affected relatives of their patients. They institutionalized them as well, believing these people should be discouraged from reproducing.

Asylum superintendents, legislators, and social reformers embarked on a deeply misguided eugenics movement to improve society by passing sterilization laws.

These laws were eventually supported by the U.S. Supreme Court (1927 Buck vs. Bell case), passed in 32 states, and formed part of the rationale for Nazi Germany’s atrocities. This movement continued into the 1960s, with more than 60,000 Americans undergoing sterilization.

  1. Bloodletting with Leeches

Physician Benjamin Rush is considered the father of American psychiatry. In his book, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, he wrote about hypochondriasis, which is form of melancholia or modern-day depression.

He wrote that this condition needed to be treated by “direct and drastic interferences” that involved “assaulting the patient’s mind and body” in an attempt to reset their constitution.

He recommended that doctor’s “plumb” patients’ systems by bleeding with leeches, blistering, and cupping (similar to the current cupping trend).

  1. Purging with Poison

Rush also prescribed drugs, like mercury, arsenic, and strychnine—now known to be poisonous—to induce vomiting and diarrhea. He also suggested fasting for two or three days.

Once the body was cleaned out, he recommended:

  • Stimulants, such as tea and coffee, ginger, and black pepper in large doses
  • Magnesia
  • Mustard rubs
  • Hot baths to induce sweating followed by cold baths
  • Exercise
  1. Spinning in a Gyrating Chair

Rush also believed that many psychiatric illnesses were the result of blocked circulation. To improve brain blood flow in schizophrenic patients, Rush would strap them into a “gyrating chair.”

This device resembling a merry-go-round. Rush would spin patients around until they became dizzy. It didn’t work.

  1. Animal Magnetism

In the 1770s, Europe was influenced by German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who attempted to treat the “energy blockages” he believed were at the root of mental illness. He thought all illnesses could be attributed to an insufficient flow of what he called “animal magnetism.”1

By putting patients into a trance-like state and then probing certain body parts to restore energy flow, Mesmer drove his patients to states of crisis (delirium or seizures). In some patients, symptoms miraculously vanished after the treatment, rocketing Mesmer to celebrity status.

In 1843, Scottish physician James Braid coined the term hypnosis for a technique derived from animal magnetism to induce hypnotic trances.

  1. Inducing Fevers

Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg experimented with curing psychosis by inducing fevers. Misguided, he infected his patients with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. It was not successful.

Undeterred, he began to use malaria parasites in 1917 to treat psychotic patients suffering from syphilis. About 15% of them died, and the rest contracted malaria, but the fevers did temporarily decrease their symptoms.

When others tried to replicate his work, however, it failed. Even so, Wagner-Jauregg was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research in 1927.

  1. Triggering Insulin Seizures

In 1927, another Austrian psychiatrist, Walter Sakel, administered large doses of insulin to purposely cause seizures in psychotic patients. Researchers discovered that if blood glucose levels went too low, people fell into a coma or experienced seizures, and this could temporarily alleviate symptoms.

Unfortunately, the treatment was associated with negative side effects, such as obesity and more severe consequences, including brain damage and even death.

  1. Lobotomy

What is a lobotomy? It’s a procedure developed by Portuguese neurologist António Moniz. In 1935, Moniz drilled holes into the skulls of 20 mentally disturbed patients and used a wire to sever the connections in the brain’s frontal lobes.

Moniz was hoping the procedure, now known as a lobotomy, would calm his patients, who suffered from anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. It worked!

Patients became more compliant, spurring wide adoption of the procedure, which was subsequently used on thousands of patients.

Over time, however, it became apparent that it destroyed personalities and turned people into zombie-like beings. Despite these alarming side effects, Moniz also received a Nobel Prize for his work.

  1. Shock Therapy

In 1938, Italian neurologists Ugo Cerletti and Lucino Bini were the first to deliver electric shocks to patients to induce seizures. They found that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) had more lasting benefits than insulin shock therapy with fewer side effects.

ECT is still used today to treat severe cases of schizophrenia, clinical depression, mania, and serious suicidal thoughts. With anesthesia, muscle relaxants, and more targeted dosing, it can be an effective technique, but it can also cause memory problems, confusion, headaches, and muscle aches.


Thankfully, psychiatry is making strides with more effective and far less barbaric treatments.  Forward-thinking psychiatrists like the team of professionals at Amen Clinics are practicing a form of precision psychiatry that involves a brain-body approach to treating mental illness.

Thanks to functional brain-imaging studies using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans, it has become clear that mental health is really brain health. Brain function is related to a person’s mental wellbeing.

With SPECT scans, people can get more targeted treatment that is tailored to their individual needs. In some instances, psychiatric medication may be necessary, but not always.

In many cases, natural treatments for brain health and mental health are a first line of defense. When it comes to treating major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions, strategies may include:

  • Lifestyle changes—eating a healthy diet, exercising, meditating, and more
  • Noninvasive techniques—neurofeedback, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), and more
  • Psychotherapy—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and more

With so many advances in psychiatry, there has never been a better time to seek help for mental health problems.

Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, attention problems, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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