General Psychology - 11:00

Historical Treatment for the Mentally Ill
Lindsey Wilson

Since the beginning of civilization, the treatment for people with a mental illness has been bizarre, cruel, and even deadly. These unfortunate souls were often treated as if they were possessed or even inhuman. Here are some very interesting tactics that physicians have used throughout history.

In prehistoric times, tribes had their own shamans that would attempt to use spells to release the magical being that infected the mind. During the time that the Hebrews were conquered and exiled to the Babylonian kingdom, monotheistic beliefs brought about the idea that mental illness was induced because of sin or possession by demons. Seeking to be spiritually righteous, the cure for this was thought to be prayer and fasting. Ancient Greeks utilized an electric eel by placing it on the body or head to numb pain. The Greek word for this creature was “narka”, which ultimately founded the word “narcotics”.


Unusual ideas about treatment for people with mental disorders continued. In 1276, it was suggested by Pope John XXI that eating a roasted mouse would heal frantic people. Later on, it was believed that madness was caused by having stones in the head. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, recommended that in order to “shake out the madness” the ill person should be chained to the ceiling and spun around for hours to relax the muscles and lower the pulse. He also believed that mad people could be calmed by blood-letting from 20 to 40 ounces of blood at one time. Dr. Rush then developed a “tranquilizer chair” in 1811. This invention efficiently kept a person securely immobile and had a wooden box in which their head would be put into in order to keep the person subdued.

Benjamin Rush also described African American slaves as suffering from a disease called Negritude in which the only cure for the disorder was to become white. Ironically, Rush was the co-founder of the first anit-slavery society in America and his face is still on the official seal of the American Psychiatric Association. During the 1800s, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, another leading authority on the medical care of African American slaves, believed that he had identified a particular disorder that only afflicted slaves. He thought that Drapetomia was the disease that caused slaves to run away. He said, "The cause in most cases, that induces the Negro to run away from service, is such a disease of the mind as in any other species of alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule." Cartwright suggested that slaves showing signs of Drapetomia should be severely whipped as an early therapeutic intervention.

Around this same time Dr. Henry Cotten tested his theory that infections in the body caused madness. If the infected parts were removed, he believed he could stop the lunacy. Between 1919 and 1921, he ordered 11,000 teeth to be pulled from his patients in New Jersey. If this procedure didn’t work, Cotten would remove parts of the stomach, bowels, and genitalia. The doctor ultimately killed more than 100 patients and succeeded in reaching a mortality rate of 43% of those treated.

Another American named Dr. Willard ran a private asylum in a small town on the east coast. He believed that if a person were submersed in water to the point where they were barely alive, they would fully recover and be more mentally stable. Another psychiatrist described the scene. “Dr. Willard had a tank prepared on the premises into which the patient, enclosed in a coffin-like box with holes, was lowered by means of a well-sweep. He was kept there until the bubbles of air cease to rise, then was taken out, rubbed and revived.” Willard hoped that the near death experience would cause the mind to create a fresh start.

After Benjamin Franklin received an electric shock that left him with minor amnesia, he thought it would be a good idea to try giving people with mental illnesses electroshock therapy. A British doctor by the name of John Birch tried this treatment on a depressed and suicidal singer. More recently, in 1938, an Italian doctor observed that slaughterhouse workers used electricity to send the meat animals into convulsions to make it easier to kill them. Electro-Convulsive Therapy uses the same concept to send 180 to 460 volts of electricity across the brain, causing convulsions and frequent amnesia.

The Nazis used electric shock as punishment for any German soldiers that were afraid to fight in the war, often times killing them before they made it to the battle. Nazi doctors took this form of punishment and made a film that observed the positives and negatives of Electroshock and gassing practices. The film portrayed the notion that electricity could cure mental illness and that gassing the ill to death should only be used as secondary action.


In 1935 there was a return to the trend of psychosurgery using methods such as drilling holes into the skull before using tools that resembled apple corers and ice picks to cut into the brain. This procedure of cutting into the lobes of the brain is called lobotomy. One of the early practitioners of this method was a Portuguese neurosurgeon who used thin blades to probe the brain once he had the holes drilled. Interestingly, he was shot and paralyzed by one of his lobotomy patients and beaten to death by another.

Treatment for people with mental disorders has greatly evolved since the mid 20th century. Science has discovered the use of drugs to help patients with depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder, and many other conditions. Hopefully, the people who have already had to suffer through their illness will never again be treated as disposable lab rats.


“Discussion: History of Mental Illness.” Bipolar World. 2009. Web. 12 May. 2010. <>.

“Inhumane & Insane Cures.” The Limbic Region Website. 2003. Web. 12 May. 2010. <>.

Jackson, Vanessa. “An Early History – African American Mental Health.” Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law. 2008. The University of Dayton School of Law. Web. 12 May. 2010. <>.

Suzi Calliham

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