Last updated:

March 20, 2024


 min read

Ancient Practices for Modern Depression relief

Explore the evolution of depression treatment from ancient practices to modern therapies, understanding its historical context and contemporary approaches for effective relief.

Reviewed by
Sneha Toppo
Written by
Shruthi Chacko

Depression is among the oldest emotional and psychological illnesses known to man. Depression symptoms can be behavioural, emotional, or physical. Symptoms include a significant shift in mood, outlook, and habits. They may transition from optimistic and confident to pessimistic and socially withdrawn. Depression may cause people to quit their jobs, stop attending school, or divorce their spouse. The condition affects a person's personal and professional life, as well as causing physical symptoms such as aches, muscle pains, severe fatigue, and reduced movement.

Digging deeper into Ancient and Mediaeval Times

While the majority of ancient and mediaeval societies believed that depression was caused by demons and witchcraft, an alternative, enlightened school of thinking existed throughout recorded history. The ancient Romans and several Greek physicians believed that depression was a mental illness induced by grief or blood and bile imbalances. The treatment included exercise, music, hydrotherapy, or a primitive kind of behavioural therapy in which positive behaviour was rewarded. Physicians believed that depression was caused by a specific triggering event or a physiological imbalance of the body's humours. Hippocrates utilised bloodletting to replenish the humours in sad patients (Nava, 2018)

Ancient Mesopotamians, Chinese, and Egyptian civilizations believed that demonic powers caused depression. Priests, shamans, religious leaders, and authorities exorcised those who had depression. Treatments in societies where mental disorders were supposed to originate in the demonic realm and the evil arts were barbarous (Nava, 2018). Sufferers were placed in leg irons, beaten, or starved. In mediaeval Europe, those considered to be depressed were drowned or burned as witches. Medieval Europeans believed the disease was contagious and that all victims should be killed or imprisoned.

Practices during the Renaissance 

During the Renaissance in Europe, which lasted from the 15th to the 17th centuries, therapies and perspectives on depression were polarised. The majority of society believed that people who had depression were witches and devils, and burnings and executions were routine. However, the medical community and professions of the time continued to believe that depression was a brain condition and that people struggling with mental conditions needed fair and compassionate treatment.

Robert Burton, an Anglican clergyman, composed and published The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621. He claimed that depression had distinct causes, including poverty, fear, and solitude. Burton proposed music, bloodletting, travel, natural medications, and even marriage as treatments for the condition.

Practices in the 18th and 19th centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, views regarding depression became bleak. During this time, people with the condition were regarded to have a weak temperament that was inherited; thus, there was no cure or anything anyone could do for them. Patients were imprisoned in asylums or sentenced to a life of poverty and homelessness.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the medical establishment began to experiment with various methods of treating the disease. Immersion therapy, lobotomies, and electroshock therapy (ECT) were all developed and used during this time.

Lobotomies and ECT were new procedures. A botched lobotomy treatment could leave patients incapacitated or possibly dead. With ECT, inexperienced clinicians sometimes utilise too high a voltage or fail to take the necessary safety precautions, which are now standard practice.

New era of talk therapy

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud claimed that depression emerged from the concept of 'loss,' either real or felt within the patient's psyche. Freud was a pioneer in modern psychology, developing a type of talk therapy for depressed patients. During Freud's time, other schools of thought, primarily physicians, believed depression was caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry.

During the 1950s and 1960s, scientists and doctors made significant improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Doctors discovered that a medicine used to treat tuberculosis was also beneficial to people suffering from depression. At this point, doctors began investigating the effects of pharmacology on the condition. Drugs were created and used to treat the condition. After decades of debating whether depression was caused by a physiological imbalance or an emotional response to external stimuli, doctors began treating depression as if both were to blame. Medications and conversation therapy were initially utilised to treat depression in the mid to late twentieth century. The practice continues.

Modern Era

Anxiety and panic attacks can occasionally trigger an episode of depression., It was until the middle of the twentieth century that doctors, therapists, and scientists began to actively recognise and describe the various symptoms and causes associated with the depressive subtypes.

With the implementation of subtype diagnosis, clinicians can now give a tailor made approach for effective treatments for their patients. Depression is not viewed as either/or in modern medicine. A depressive episode can be triggered by environmental factors, genetics, temperament, as well as physical and chemical causes. Having a family member with the condition, being emotional or sensitive, and experiencing a stressful event have all been linked to the onset of a depressive episode in at-risk individuals.

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Kendler, K. S. (2020, August 1). The Origin of Our Modern Concept of Depression—The History of Melancholia From 1780-1880. JAMA Psychiatry.

Marek, K., Zubrycki, I., & Miller, E. (2022, December 17). Immersion Therapy with Head-Mounted Display for Rehabilitation of the Upper Limb after Stroke—Review. Sensors.

Nava, G. M. (2018, September 10). Depression: From Sorrow to Melancholia. Scholarly Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, 1(2).