People with psychiatric problems were not always considered fully human: even within the last 100 years problems ranging from epilepsy and schizophrenia to things like dementia, post-traumatic stress, and even childhood misbehavior were treated with shocking cruelty. Humans were chained, heated, cooled, irradiated, shocked, and much more all in the name of “treatment.” Consent wasn’t required for experimenting on the mentally ill until recently. Those deemed mentally ill were treated like lab rats, with those that survived the experimental treatments often having severe side effects, and those that died were cut open to see what was wrong. Below are 10 treatments that might shock you.
- Hydrotherapy treatments consisted of placing patients in baths or steam cabinets for extended periods of time to treat various conditions or simply to calm the patients down. The patients were often not given a choice and were forced to undergo treatment if the patient wasn’t calm.Here we can see patients in steam cabinets in the early 1900s.Patients were often forced into baths for a minimum of several hours. The bath was often covered by a sheet so that only the patients head wasn’t under water. The patients would sometimes be strapped in so that they couldn’t move and would have to be fed by staff. Bath temperatures typically ranged from 92-99°F to avoid causing injury to the patients. However, cold water was used to treat manic-depressive psychoses at temperatures between 48-70°F to slow down blood flow to the brain and decreasing mental and physical activity. On few occasions, patients would be cooled down in ice water baths or wrapped in sheets soaked with freezing water.
- “The Utica Crib“ was named after the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica where it was heavily used in the 19th century to confine patients.
Many died because they couldn’t sit still and began to panic and go into shock. Some patients died in the Utica Crib because attendants would place them in there for being out of control when in reality they were having a heart attack, a stroke, or another serious health problem. Use of the Utica Crib continued into the 20th century.
- In 1927, one recently qualified doctor, Sakel, began to treat drug addicts and psychopaths with low doses of insulin, he later increased his doses, causing comas and sometimes convulsions. The results were made public in 1933 and were soon taken up by other psychiatrists.
Insulin shock therapy became quite popular in the 1940s and 1950s, mainly for schizophrenia, before largely being replaced with neuroleptic drugs in the 1960s. A few psychiatrists claims success rates of over 80% in the treatment of schizophrenia. A study at the time claimed a mortality rate of 4.9%. Brain damage was another severe risk.In some cases, the patient would be given electroconvulsive therapy or cardiazol/metrazol convulsive therapy during the coma or on the day of the week they didn’t have insulin treatment.
- The Tranquilizing Chair was designed by the father of American psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush believed madness was an arterial disease, an inflammation of the brain. The chair was designed to control the flow of blood toward the brain by lessening muscular action.
The chair was no more than a failed experiment.
- Electrotherapy is the use of electrical energy as a medical treatment and has been recorded as far back as 1767.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock therapy or shock treatment, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced. ECT was mainly used to treat schizophrenia and epilepsy, unsuccessfully.
- Radiation therapy can be traced back to experiments done soon after the discovery of x-rays in 1895.
These female psychiatric patients were receiving “Radium Therapy” in the early 20th century. Radium therapy was often used to treat skin conditions, including cancers, but there were also experiments to treat epilepsy. Epilepsy was a common reason for someone to be admitted to an asylum and was thought to work in similar ways to schizophrenia by some psychologists.As solutions of free radium salts were available, these salts could be added to baths or directly applied to the body, externally and internally via every orifice, or into a tumor through incisions.
- Diathermia is the usage of electrically induced heat for therapeutic purposes. It was a precursor to electroconvulsive therapy and considered the “laser” of its day.
This photo shows a patient undergoing lateral cerebral diathermia treatment in the early 1920s. Doctors deemed it unsafe and unreliable. “As I have seen, a trouble shooter may pull out a fuse or switch at a distance and almost at once replace it, thus giving a brain case two very bad shocks, one right after the other, and possibly causing dangerous syncope,” Chris M. Sampson wrote in his 1926 book “A Practice of Physiotherapy.”
- The Whirling Chair or the spinning chair was used to treat insanity and mania in the 1800s.
Much like hydrotherapy, this treatment was often used to simply calm someone down. “One of the most constant effects of swinging is a greater or less degree of vertigo, attended by pallor, nausea, and vomiting; and frequently by the evacuation of the contents of the bladder” reported Joseph Mason Cox in his book “Practical Observations on Insanity” in 1804. Cox also used a variety of other procedures, including a swinging chair.
Here we can see the same idea being used in the 1940s. “During stress, patient is strapped in a suspended armchair and whirled rapidly, after which a normal patient would be dizzy but a psychotic will not.” (1949 Herbert Gehr, LIFE Magazine)
- Trepanation is a prehistoric procedure dating back thousands of years. It is where a part of the skull is drilled or scraped to create a bore hole. Cave paintings indicate that people believed it would cure epileptic seizures, migraines, and mental disorders. This procedure is much older than any anesthetic, so we can safely assume that the procedure was very painful.
Trepanation was an extreme response to symptoms of mental disease, including paralysis in the late 1800s. Some also thought that mental illness was was a demonic possession and that creating a hole would let the demon out. A few patients reported beneficial results while others had negative effects, some had brain damage, and some patients died instantly. It’s likely that some patients died from shock.
- Unlike trepanation, which specifically attempts to avoid contact with the brain, lobotomies were performed specifically to break fixed circuits in the brain that were believed to be the cause of obsessive behavioral traits. Severing the connecting fibers of the neurons activity was hoped to eliminate the vast proportion of mental disorders. Holes would be made in the skull to access the brain.
In this image taken in 1949, Dr. Walter J. Freeman is performing a trans-orbital lobotomy. This simpler lobotomy became somewhat of a craze in the 1950s and involved knocking a patient unconscious with electric shocks, then rolling the eyelid back and inserting a thin metal ice-pick like instrument called a leucotome through a tear duct. A mallet is then used to tap the instrument to the proper depth. Finally, the instrument was sawed back and forth to sever the neural receptors, sometimes in both eyes.
There is some evidence that the method helped some people with very severe conditions, but much more often the patient had horrible side effects, in many cases ending up nearly catatonic. Patients often had paralysis, memory loss and even schizophrenia, and.. it also killed a lot of people.