Vomiting, Exorcism, And Drilling Holes In The Skull: Historical “Cures” For Mental Illness

Published February 24, 2016
Updated December 9, 2021


Purging Mental Illness Treatment

A depiction of a purge. Image Source: Barfology

Around the same time as bloodletting was being explored, physicians began to think that the cause of mental illness lay within a patient’s body, and could be cured by expunging it through pretty disgusting means.

One of the most common treatments was to induce vomiting. Ancient Greeks used black hellebore, a foul-tasting though beautiful flower. Bitter apple was also used for its bad taste, and Americans used tobacco. The Arabs made a concoction of myrobalans (an astringent plant), rhubarb, and senna, which has laxative properties, to clear the bowels.

Apparently these purges were meant to clear people of melancholy, however, the process itself would seem to induce a melancholic state, rather than cure one. Indeed, since the process had the same rationale as bleeding, purging in any fashion is just as ineffective as bleeding — and just as unpleasant.

If you enjoyed this look at how humanity used to “cure’ mental illness, check out our posts on the worst execution and torture methods throughout history.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.