How Depression Was Treated Throughout History

Florida Psychiatrists


Depression and mental health issues aren’t just today’s problem. People have been wrestling with mental illnesses throughout history. But how exactly was depression treated back then? Every culture had their own methods, each evolving through time. Here were the most popular treatment options for depression in history.


Plant-based remedies were the main way that depression was treated back in the day. Many worked to lift mood, though today we would scoff at them. Here were the “medications” used back then:

  • Opium Poppy: No doubt you’ve heard of opium and poppy before. It’s been used to treat depression (and a ton of other ailments) since as early as 3rd millennium BC. It enhances the feeling of well-being and was known as the “Plant of Joy”.
  • Atropa Belladonna: This actually comes from the poisonous plant, nightshade. In small doses, though it produces a calming effect and stabilizes the nervous system.
  • Henbane and Thorn Apple: It was the ancient Egyptians that used these two herbs to help treat disorders.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol is still used today by many to self-medicate their mental illnesses. Throughout history, alcohol was actually a prescript treatment for depression.
  • Other common treatments were poppy, Mandrake, hypericum oil, caffeine, cannabis and milk and barley mixtures. Eventually, substances like bromide (1826), codeine (1832), chloral hydrate (1869), paraldehyde (1882), and barbiturates were discovered and used.



There was no such thing as psychiatrists back in the old days. People instead relied on healers, apothecaries, and sometimes doctors. At some point’s people even turned to religion or magic to heal depression. Eventually, though, institutions to house and treat those will mental disorders was created.

It was during the 14th century that “madhouses” were created to treat the mentally ill. They were poorly run, looked like dungeons, and were pretty inhumane. A lot of the negative associations with the mentally ill and mental hospitals began at this time. The Arabic doctors in the Middle East created slightly better versions where they were more humane and used more modern ways of treating illness. Unfortunately, mental hospitals didn’t change much over time, which is why even modern era ones were poor quality. It took over 100 years just to ban the chains that were used to manacle patients.

There were two types of treatments that were used in these “madhouses” that have gained a sinister reputation. One was electroconvulsive therapy. It was often forced on patients who were admitted. A similar technology is used today, but it has since progressed so that it is safer and more effective, not to mention people knowingly undergo it. The second treatment was a lobotomy, which was not effective at all. Both of these treatments are often still used to horror films, but they were once a reality for people suffering from depression.

Other Treatments

Today, along with medication and therapy, psychiatrists recommend patients focus on doing activities that bring them happiness. They encourage individuals to find hobbies that bring them joy and meaning.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans did a similar thing. They used music, dancing, and acting as forms of therapy. Physiotherapy was also used, with massages, baths, and gymnastic used to treat depression. A little later on Arabic doctors used similar methods of making patients happy. They tried to cheer them by reading, music, and even sexual stimulation.



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