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The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

The standard present-day procedure for mental illness is nothing out of the ordinary. If we have any concerns, we can simply book a doctor’s appointment and rest assured that we will receive treatment that is safe and healthy, but that wasn’t always the case. From drilling holes into patients’ skulls to removing reproductive organs, there have been quite a few questionable mental illness treatments throughout history… and some of them are still used today.

1. Chemically Induced Seizures

The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

Image Source: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders

Medical-induced brain seizures were first used to treat mental illness in 1934, and this treatment evolved into ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) which is widely used today. Ladislas Joseph von Meduna was the first to study the effects of chemically-induced seizures in patients with mental illness, specifically psychosis and catatonia.

Camphor (C10H16O) is a crystalline compound that comes from camphor tree bark and is currently used as insect repellent and plasticizer. It used to be administered to mentally ill patients via an injection to induce seizures in hopes of finding a cure. Camphor injections proved to be inefficient and were replaced by pentylenetetrazol injections. Although pentylenetetrazol injections were effective, they were difficult to administer, and another treatment was developed.

ECT was used for the first time in 1938 by Italian researchers Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini. It was popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but many patients complained of memory loss after the treatment and its popularity declined until the ‘70s.

Modern ECT takes place in a safe and controlled environment. The patient is put under the influence of anesthesia and muscle relaxants with electrodes placed on his or her head, and electric shock induces a seizure. It is used in patients who have severe major depressive disorder, medication-refractory mood disorders or psychosis. It is also surprisingly common; in the U.S, about 150,000 people get ETC every year!

2. Insulin Coma Therapy

The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

Image Source: Wikipedia

Insulin coma therapy (ICT) was extremely dangerous, had horrible side effects and killed between 1-10% of patients who used it. It originated in Europe and came to the U.S in the 1930s.

Dr. Manfred Sakel began using insulin to reduce the side effects of patients going through opiate withdrawal, such as anxiety, weight loss and vomiting. He found that after the patients received insulin they became calm and more cooperative, and gained weight back. When they received a large enough dose of insulin, they went into a state of unconsciousness and when they awoke they were less hostile, less argumentative, less aggressive, and no longer had psychotic thoughts. From then on, ICT became a standard practice.

Dr. Alan Gibson published an article in The Psychiatric Bulletin that revealed his experience with administering ICT and reiterated that in some cases it did work. He stated that very occasionally, patients who were clearly psychotic and had an “irreversible coma” were “greatly mentally improved” after recovery. He also said ICT clearly had an effect on patients “if only for a limited period.”

By the 1960s, antipsychotic drugs were found to be the most effective, cheap and long-lasting method of treatment and ICT had a much higher risk so it was no longer used. Today, it is no longer used in the West but there are rare reports of ICT in Asia and Eastern Europe.

3. Rotational Therapy

The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

Image Source: The Challenges of Mental Illness

Rotational therapy is more or less what it sounds like: patients sat down in chairs (called “Cox’s chair”) and were spun around. This outlandish treatment was invented by Eramus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, in the early 19th century. It was used to treat patients suffering from conditions of mania or elevated arousal. Darwin proposed that spinning patients around excessively would increase pressure and in turn decrease “brain congestion.” Dr. Joseph Mason Cox then developed a technique for rotating patients using a chair with a specific design (illustrated above).

Rotational therapy spread across Europe rapidly and there were no objectively adverse effects, but patients reported feeling less “good, relaxed, comfortable, and calm.” In addition, Cox’s chair was sometimes used abusively in psychiatric settings, and the therapy itself was not pleasant as the patient’s head and body was attached to a spinning device in a dark room. 

While researching the effects of rotational therapy on both healthy and mentally ill patients, German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin said that healthy patients “begged for the machine to be stopped before two minutes had passed,” and mentally ill patients “endured the experience for as long as four minutes.” Cox’s chair is no longer used, but it caused the relationship between the vestibular system (which plays a role in the orientation of the body with respect to gravity and movement) and mood states to be studied further.

4. Hysteria Treatment for Women

The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

Image Source: Bitlanders

During the 19th century, depression, anxiety and stress were common among women in Britain because of their lack of control and independence in a highly patriarchal society. They were completely reliant on their husbands or fathers, and had virtually no choice but to become respectable housewives. It was common for women in the Victorian era to be diagnosed with “hysteria,” which had no medical explanation but was defined as nervous, eccentric and erratic behaviour. The word hysteria was derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus.

Dr. Maurice Bucke, a respected professional in Canadian gynecology who worked at the London asylum, believed that women’s reproductive organs were related to their emotional well being and were the cause of mental illness. As a result, surgery including hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus, was a common procedure. Finally, at the end of the 19th century Dr. Bucke’s procedures were criticized as being “mutilation” and “meddlesome” and by the time he passed away in 1902 hysterectomies were no longer practiced to treat mental illness in Britain. Hysteria treatments did not end in the U.S until “hysteria” was left out of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952.

5. Trephination

The 5 Strangest Treatments for Mental Illness Throughout History

Image SourceWikipedia

Trephination is a surgical procedure where a hole is drilled into the patient’s skull without damaging the brain, blood vessels and membranes that lie underneath. The earliest evidence of trephination is from the Neolithic era, which lasted from about 9000 to 3000 BC. 40 prehistoric trephined skulls from around 6500 BC were found at a burial site in France, and similar remains and iconographic artwork were found in Mesoamerica. 

Evidence dating from 950 to 1400 CE were discovered in Mexico, Guatemala and Yucatan Peninsula. The earliest evidence found in China was a trephined skull was dated to 5000 BP, and the remains amazingly showed evidence of healing and recovery, and that the person continued to live for a significant amount of time after the procedure.

People used trephination as a way to cure mental illness because they believed it occurred as a result of demonic possession, and drilling a hole in the skull would allow unwanted spirits to escape. However, some people currently believe that trephination has a scientific basis and it is still practiced today, though rarely. One woman used this ancient drilling technique as recently as 2013. In an interview with Vice she claims that it has has various health benefits and has been successfully used to treat headaches, epilepsy, and migraines.


Treatments for mental illness were often unsafe and unwarranted. Thankfully, modern treatments such as psychotherapy and medication are safe and physically non-invasive. There are also several organizations and programs like Bell Let’s Talk, MISS (Mental Illness Stigma Support), and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) that aim to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. If you’re looking for safe and helpful mental illness treatment near you, The Mental Health Helpline is a great resource for information!


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