From Leeches to Lobotomies: 11 Crazy Ways Mental Illness Has Been Treated in History

From Leeches to Lobotomies: 11 Crazy Ways Mental Illness Has Been Treated in History

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. In my book, The End of Mental Illness, I take readers on 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, a surgical procedure that involved drilling or scraping a hole in the skull to release evil spirits thought to be trapped inside.

2. 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, but the Catholic Church’s Inquisition banned their writings. In some cases, religious leaders attempted exorcisms to unleash the demons.

3. 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 and institutionalize 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 that 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.

4. Bloodletting with Leeches

Physician Benjamin Rush, who is considered the father of American psychiatry, wrote in his book, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, that hypochondriasis—a form of melancholia or modern-day depression—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 (leeches), blistering, and cupping (similar to the current cupping trend that reached national attention when swimmer Michael Phelps was spotted at the 2016 Olympics with the telltale purple blotches on his back that arise from the treatment).

5. Purging with Poison

Rush also prescribed drugs, like mercury, arsenic, and strychnine—now known to be poisonous—to induce vomiting and diarrhea and 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; and exercise.

6. 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,” a device resembling a merry-go-round, then spin them around until they became dizzy. It didn’t work.

7. 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.” 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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, 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.

11. Lobotomy

In 1935, Portuguese neurologist António 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, called 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.

The End of Mental Illness is written by psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen and relies on the latest neuroscience and leading-edge brain imaging to show that mental health is really brain health. In the book, he shares more about the strange history of psychiatry and how the field is stuck in an outdated, ineffective paradigm. The book reveals that we need a completely different paradigm for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions—one that is rooted in neuroscience and hope. Order your copy today.

While most traditional psychiatrists remain stuck in an industry that refuses to look at the organ it treats, the future of psychiatry is here now at Amen Clinics. We use brain SPECT imaging to more accurately diagnose and treat people who are struggling with a wide range of issues. And we believe in using the least toxic, most effective solutions for our patients. If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. I have seen many women with brain problems have children who themselves have brain problems. They suffer greatly with their pain, and it lasts until the end of their lives. Many of them are poor and can never afford treatment that might be highly beneficial. I myself did not have any children because of my brain problems, and I am grateful that I did not. They would have lived a poor, frustrating life as I’ve had to.

    Comment by Margaret — December 30, 2019 @ 6:42 AM

  2. Reading this article makes me grateful that medicine no longer uses these archaic and barbaric methods to treat their patients. What a nightmare!

    Comment by Martina — December 30, 2019 @ 8:52 AM

  3. I’ve received ECT in the past, at one point (imo) without my consent. I was in no frame of mind to be giving consent for something so serious. In all the “treatments,” (I prefer the term TORTURE to be more fitting) they never helped, only left me with both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, even dropping my IQ by 33 points. Even with anesthesia and muscle relaxants, it is STILL barbaric, and I’ve never met or heard of anyone who didn’t also suffer severe memory loss, whether the ECT helped their symptoms or not. The last “treatment” I had I was not given muscle relaxants, and I believe it was on purpose. I was in so much pain it was unbelievable. I could not move my jaw to speak, let alone eat, and all the workers at the hospital were berating me because I could not eat, saying I was “faking it.” Also, before you give consent to be “treated,” they show you a 30-minute video about ECT, in which it was told memory loss was transient and would return in 6-12 months. In all the patients I’ve met or spoke to, they also received similar info about ECT. The doctors withhold the truth from patients to capitalize on their insurances.

    Comment by Dana — December 30, 2019 @ 4:04 PM

  4. You have done a very good job chronicling historic treatment of sadness and depression throughout history. It is my opinion that pills given for the various psychiatric disorders is still barbaric like throwing a dart trying to hit a target. It never works. The use of the psychchemicals is abominable. So too psychologists with their questionable therapies. It’s criminal and only guided by drug company and psychotherapeutic profits.

    Comment by Richard Endless — January 26, 2022 @ 5:39 PM

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