Scary Mental Illness Treatments In History You Haven't Heard About (For Good Reason)

When it comes to the treatment of the mentally ill throughout history, we're all historians, at least to an extent. Lobotomies, where a part of the brain is stabbed with a rod through the eye socket? Trepanning, where a bit of the skull is drilled through? Life in an asylum? Shock therapy? Common knowledge, and barbaric and hideous. (Trepanning, interestingly, is one of the oldest methods of dealing with mental problems known to man; skulls with trepanning holes have been discovered from the Neolithic period, with evidence that the person survived.) But there have been extremely diverse methods of curing or managing mental illness throughout history, from the benign (amulets, herbal concoctions) to the downright insane (doses of poison and starvation, anybody?).

The modern world, it's important to note, didn't "invent" the notion of mental illness, or completely revolutionize the way in which we look at it. Texts from ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, reveal sensitive and nuanced understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, depression, and other disorders of the mind. As explanations for mental illness shifted throughout the ages, so did sympathy towards it and, crucially, how people were expected to treat it. Did you try to cure somebody, leave them to wander out by themselves, or, as Michel Foucault imagined, put them on boats to wander up and down the medieval Rhine in a literal "ship of fools"? (This, unlike many other hideous practices, turns out not to have really happened; but it's not so far from what actually did.)

How people treated those with mental illnesses throughout history reveals a lot about the society in general. Unfortunately, in the case of these more obscure but deeply disturbing "cures," the revelation isn't all that flattering.

Drug-Induced Nightmares

The ancient Egyptians, and afterwards the Greeks (who got it from them), had an interesting idea for how to soothe a "disordered mind:" give it lots of drugs, put it in a labyrinth, and see what nightmares resulted. The practice was known as "incubation," a sacred sleep that happened in a temple under the influence of drugs (often opium); the Greeks would confine the practice to temples devoted to Asclepios, god of healing, but the Eygptians were the ones who perfected it.

The two cultures took slightly different approaches to the whole idea. Egyptian mentally ill people were drugged so heavily they were supposed to enter the realm of the dead, where they would be held and cured by the goddess Isis, who was supposed to sing to them. The Greeks, however, had other ideas. The mentally ill person would be pampered with baths and drinks, then drugged and led into a labyrinth, where they'd start to have "visions" induced by their drugged state, which the priests would interpret. One can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for people who already felt not entirely in control of their own heads.

Starvation & Torture

What's a really good way to treat the vulnerable and mentally ill? How about hurting them intentionally? That was the perspective of the Roman medical writer Celsus, who thought that people suffering from particular types of madness were likely to respond to starvation, beatings, frightening events, and generally being tormented, as the "shock" was meant to frighten him into regaining his equilibrium. (This is also the man who recommended that a man suffering from rabies be thrown in a fishpond.)

This wasn't just the perspective of Celsus and the Romans, either. A book called the Huangdi neijing , from around 200 BC in ancient China, carries a host of medical recommendations, including the idea that starvation was good for the mad. “As treatment for such an excited condition," it notes, "withholding food was suggested since food was considered to be the source of positive force and the patient was thought to be need of a decrease in such force.”

Poisonous Vomiting

The medieval period was not a good time to be mentally ill. Even though a lot of the stories about people thinking the mentally ill were possessed or witches are likely exaggerated, the more "medicinal" side of things was hardly nicer. According to clinical psychology professor Allison Foerschner, one of the most beloved remedies for particular kinds of mental imbalance in the Middle Ages was a purgative, specifically aimed at rebalancing the levels of "black bile" in the body, which was alleged to be excessive in people with "melancholy" and other mental disorders.

How they did this was often extremely dangerous. Purgatives were made out of the extremely poisonous root of the black hellebore, which had been used as a vomit-inducing ingredient since the days of the ancient Greeks (who distinguished between the roots of the black and white hellebore, but used them both to nearly kill their patients). Foerschner traces one recipe that was lifted from Ptolemy, and included aloes and the bitter plant colocynth (otherwise known as the "vine of Sodom") alongside hellebore in its ingredients. (Colocynth is a severe irritant of the mucus membranes of the stomach, so it likely would have induced serious, even lethal vomiting.)

Whipping With Pigskin & Drinking Hallucinogens

Anglo-Saxon England may have been odd in many ways, but if you were mentally ill, it frankly became indelibly strange, if texts from the period are to be believed. According to sources collated in the New Zealand Journal Of Psychology, mild methods of cure, like listening to music, prayer, and being washed in holy water, stood alongside more violent ones. One of the main ones was herbal concoctions involving hugely strange ingredients; one, apparently, was mandrake. Yes, the plant that allegedly caused death by its screaming when it was pulled out of the ground. (It doesn't, but it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, and is known to induce hallucinations.)

Just in case the hallucinogenic tea didn't work, a medical text with the splendid name of Bald's Leechbook had a back-up: "take the skin of a mere swine (sow), make it into a whip and strike the man with it, soon he will be well." Nobody comes out looking good in that: the pig, the lunatic, or the whipping master.

Putting Fresh Lamb Lungs On The Head

It's not always sensible to imply that a cure mentioned once in a medical text was widely used everywhere. Some of the ideas for treating mental illnesses throughout history were definitely the very particular ideas of the people using them. One poor woman's treatment in 1628 was the brainchild of the man treating her, Daniel Oxenbridge, a prominent doctor of the period who'd been educated at Oxford and was a Fellow of the College of Physicians. This guy wasn't a quack, but his solution sure sounded like one.

Among a hugely varied bunch of remedies administered simultaneously — bleeding her forehead, giving her fresh cider, shaving her head and dosing her with laudanum, a preparation from opium — he gave her a special flourish every evening: he put lamb or pigeon lungs on her head. What on earth this was meant to achieve remains, blessedly, obscure, but the woman in question remained mad, and Oxenbridge presumably retreated, collection of lungs in hand. Think of that next time you worry about your antidepressant prescription.

Insulin Coma Therapy

This one is just astonishing. Invented in Europe in the 1930s, the principle of insulin coma therapy was simple: take schizophrenics, give them so much insulin they slip into a coma, and see if it helps with psychotic fits. The inventor, a young Polish doctor named Manfred Sakel, commented,"My supposition was that some noxious agent weakened the resilience and the metabolism of the nerve cells ... a reduction in the energy spending of the cell, that is in invoking a minor or greater hibernation in it, by blocking the cell off with insulin will force it to conserve functional energy and store it to be available for the reinforcement of the cell." Some people did in fact have milder symptoms afterwards, but extensive studies have shown that most of it was likely temporary at best.

Unfortunately, the treatments were, as PBS describes them rather mildly, "unpleasant and dangerous," with as high as a 10 percent mortality rate in some places, a constant risk of perpetual coma, and a complete lack of anesthesia. It was, however, gentler than electric shock therapy, the other therapeutic method of the time, and so was promoted until the invention of antipsychotic medication in the 1950s brought it to an abrupt stop.

Images: Wellcome LIbrary, American Journal Of Archaeology, Wellcome Library, Imperial War Museums, Hans Holbein the Younger, Caravaggio/Wikimedia Commons