Five Outdated Psychological Treatments That Will Make You Appreciate The 21st Century

Medical books of the past can be the things of which nightmares are made.  Traditional psychological treatments from the early history of the US were performed by barbers with no medical training at all.  Eventually, doctors were trained and licensed and sought out.  As the science of psychiatry emerged, there were many procedures that seemed to be doing some good at the time, but now would be considered barbaric and cause of alarm.  If you have been thinking about getting psychiatric help and have been holding back because of fear, consider these treatments.  Nothing you will experience during your psychiatric treatment will be half as medically challenging as these treatments were in decades past.


Doctors from the early 20th century took the idea of a relaxing bath and built a mental illness treatment off of it.  Some treatments involved wrapping patients in either very hot or very cold, wet towels.  Others received sprays from high powered jets of water.  One treatment that was widely accepted was for patients to be strapped for hours or days into a bathtub and only let out to use the bathroom.  An example of this kind of treatment can be seen in A Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn.  She is asked to be the assistant to the nun in charge of overseeing a room full of screaming women who are locked into bathtubs with only their heads out.  Now, thankfully, hydrotherapy conjures up images of warm salt water baths, rejuvenating spa treatments, and isolation tanks for stimulating the brain rather than the painful experiences of the hydrotherapy of the past.

Insulin-Coma Therapy

Diabetics all over the world cringe at the idea that slipping into an insulin coma is ever a good idea.  In 1927, a Viennese physician named Manfred Sakel accidentally put a patient who happened to also be a drug addict into a coma.  When she awoke, she claimed that her morphine cravings were gone.  Sakel made another mistake and put another patient into a coma.  And it happened again.  So Sakel began doing it on purpose.  He reported a 90% success rate and was particularly successful in working with schizophrenics in this way.  There was never a good scientific reason for all of this wellness that happened while patients were in a coma.  The treatment eventually was given up because it is incredibly dangerous.  It was hard on the body and had a 2% mortality rate.


Trepanation or the practice boring a hole in the skull has been going on for centuries.  One of the earliest versions of this treatment was meant to release the demons that early man believed were plaguing the mentally ill.  Despite the potential for infection and the lack of anesthesia, this practice was carried out in cultures all over the globe.  While it was phased out as a general medical practice, there are still organizations that exist today that advocate the practice of trepanation.


Thought up by Egas Moniz, a Portuguese doctor, lobotomies are cuts made to the frontal lobe of the brain just behind the forehead.  Moniz believed that problems with the frontal lobe neurons were the cause of mental illness.  Moniz reported great success with his techniques.  He won a Nobel Prize in 1949 and began travelling the US to perform his procedures for anyone who was willing.  As more and more people got lobotomies, it was shown that while the psychotic symptoms left, most of their responses to the world left as well.  With the negative press that these kinds of results yielded, the practice soon fell out of favor.

Malaria Therapy

While not a treatment for mental illness, malaria therapy really does bear a mention.  Malaria therapy was developed by Wagner von Jauregg, a Viennese neurologist, in the early 1900s as a treatment for syphilis.  At the time, there was no treatment for syphilis.  It was a death sentence.  Von Jauregg introduced malaria infected blood into the body of the syphilis sufferer.  This gave the sufferer malaria and the very high fever that comes with it.  The high fever killed off the syphilis and then the patient could be treated with quinine to cure the malaria.  While this treatment did come with some side effects, it was fairly effective.  Von Jauregg won a Nobel Prize and his treatment was the standard for treating syphilis until penicillin came along in the 1930s.


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Since 2003, the Delray Center for Healing has provided exceptional psychiatric and therapeutic care for mental health, eating, and substance use disorders. To learn more about our philosophy and treatment approach, download our free e-book, “Psychiatry Redefined,” written by our founder and medical director, Raul J. Rodriguez, MD.