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10 Unbelievable Treatments Used to Cure Mental Illness

woman in straightjacket in padded room of asylum
Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock

Mental hospitals of the past did all they could do to try to help their patients, even if their treatments were less than humane. What was the norm then is seen as horrible now.

While many of the frightening therapies once used on the mentally ill are seen as torture by today’s standards, those treatments did help future doctors find therapies that actually help. Many of these treatments made patients even crazier than they had been when they were committed.


“Drilling” holes in people’s heads, skulls actually, has been a treatment used since prehistoric times. Various reasons were given for the use of trephination, also sometimes called trepanation. It was used to remove fractured skull pieces and to treat pain, including headaches.

While this sounds like a dangerous act to undertake, it seems that most people survived the procedure. It was done rudely, at least in the early ages, by boring into the skull with an auger or using a sharp tool to scrape away the bone of the skull.

In the mental health field, trepanation is believed to have helped treat mental illness and even work against demonic possession.


While lobotomies are no longer common practice, they are still performed on rare occasions and aren’t as rudimentary as they once were. Techniques for the treatment have developed over time, though this is still considered an invasive procedure and risky.

The lobotomy treatment severs connections in the frontal lobe region of the brain, which helps with the treatment of many mental illnesses. It’s been used for people with schizophrenia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and chronic depression.

While this treatment did receive a Nobel Prize, it was a risky operation to perform and didn’t always work.


exorcism book and cross on wooden floor
andrea crisante/Shutterstock

Exorcism isn’t something that happens only in the movies. Exorcisms were often used in mental institutions to purge demons from the mentally ill. It was believed that possession was the reason for illnesses like schizophrenia and mood disorders.

Of course, exorcism wasn’t the answer to treating mental disorders. This is one more sign that when dealing with illnesses of any kind, we seek answers in many areas of human thought and interests.


Asylums were often the final stop for many mentally ill people in the past. Because treatments were often experimental and over-the-top, they most often didn’t work. Sometimes the treatments would make people even crazier.

By being dropped off at an asylum, patients were already set up to experience isolation. They were kept away from their family and friends. Whether tossed in a “padded cell” or shut in a room or cell alone, spending too much time in isolation has been shown to have lasting psychological effects, even on those who never had a mental disorder. Humans crave social interaction.


The hydrotherapy of today is a relaxing treatment that helps with pain, arthritis, and is used in fitness training and injury rehab. This new form of hydrotherapy is very different from the hydrotherapy once used in asylums to help treat the mentally ill.

In the early twentieth century, hydrotherapy treatments required patients to spend hours or days submerged in a tub of water. The only part of the body that stayed above water was the person’s head. The room would remain dimmed with little noise, so the patient could relax and hopefully fall asleep. Care would be taken to make sure the patient wasn’t at risk of drowning.

Hydrotherapy was often used to help treat insomnia, as well as for calming angered patients and assisting patients with suicidal tendencies.

Rotation Therapy

Another quirky treatment, once used to cure illness, was rotation therapy, a procedure in which patients would be spun around very fast. The idea was that this treatment would help the patient sleep. Instead, it made them dizzy.

Shock Therapies

Shock therapies were one of the largest collections of strange and unusual treatments found in mental hospitals. Each had the same concept, to “shock” the mental illness out of the patient, but they each used different procedures to make this happen.

Metrazol Therapy

Metrazol therapy is a type of shock therapy that uses insulin to trigger convulsions. It was often believed that causing a new illness in a person would counteract other illnesses. Metrazol therapy used chemicals to cause convulsions. Metrazol therapy was used to help treat psychotic patients and those diagnosed with diseases such as schizophrenia.

Insulin Shock Therapy

Insulin shock therapy was along the same lines as Metrazol therapy, but it used insulin to cause seizures. It did work better than Metrazol treatment, yet still came with risks. Insulin was used to lower a person’s blood pressure, putting them into a coma.

Electroshock Therapy

antique electroshock device

Electroconvulsive shock treatment (ECT) literally shocked people, using electricity. If you’ve ever watched a movie that showed this treatment, or even one with someone in the electric chair, you can see how frightening and awful this treatment was.

ECT poses risks like memory loss. It is still used today, however, but it is a much more controlled treatment than it was in the past.

Fever Therapy

Because it was observed that people would be rid of symptoms from an illness after developing a fever throughout history, doctors began to think that inducing fevers would cure various diseases. This led to syphilis patients, and even those with epilepsy, being infected with malaria.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »