How did we let this stuff happen?
Medicine is always a process of trial and error. Even now, doctors must make guesses about what treatments will work, and they’re still not always right. Mental health has long been a mystery and the mistreatment of those suffering from mental illnesses has become the stuff of legends. Shockingly, the practices were often even more horrible than you think and many of the patients didn’t even need to be there in the first place.
It wasn’t always the fault of the medical practitioners, who honestly thought that they were helping when in reality they were mostly torturing their already-troubled patients. Here are some of the most barbaric (or downright perplexing) psychiatric treatments from history!
Possession & Exorcism
Perhaps the oldest treatment for mental (and physical) ailments was exorcisms of the demons that were thought to be causing the problem. Throughout history, cultures from all over the world have practiced their own version of exorcisms based on their unique religious beliefs to cure illnesses of the mind and body. There is evidence of practices to expel demons from the body dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, in India, and ancient Persia to name a few, though it’s hard to say what symptoms they were trying to treat at that time.
The practice came back into style in the Middle Ages through the Catholic Church and by that time, we know that it was being used to treat those struggling with their mental health. By this era the practice had taken on torturous undercurrents and set the stage for the barbaric treatment of patients that was to come.
Another treatment with prehistoric origins is Trepanning: The scraping or drilling of holes into the skull. There is evidence that this procedure was performed as early as the Neolithic period which is estimated to have begun in 10,000 BCE.
The practice has been used in a number of different ways throughout history but cave paintings from the Neolithic period indicate that they may have thought Trepanning would cure migraines, epilepsy, and other mental disorders.
Trepanning continued for much of history and is even used today, but not to treat mental illness. In modern medicine, it is called a craniotomy or craniectomy and is used to relieve pressure on the brain caused by excess fluid. That means that there is a chance that if the cause of some of those ancient people’s symptoms was intracranial pressure then they likely did the right thing! That’s pretty amazing if you think about it!
Another equally ancient belief was that the key to health and happiness lay in “balancing the humors” within the body. So long as the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) were in the correct balance, your health would be restored. This school of thought originated in ancient Greece and let to the primitive treatments of bloodletting/bleeding, vomiting, and purging to treat a wide variety of health problems including mental illness.
These practices, especially bloodletting, persisted for centuries with medical treatments being heavily based in Humorism until the 18th century. Although we now know that the theory was basically junk, the philosophy can still be seen in medical terminology today.