Why the Mentally ill Were Seen As Possessed Before the 19th Century


The historical perception of mental illness reveals a fascinating journey through different eras, each colored by its unique understanding and treatment of what we now recognize as mental health issues. Before the 19th century, mental illness was often misconstrued as a form of possession, a belief deeply ingrained in societal, religious, and scientific views of the time.


This exploration seeks to understand why and how these perceptions came to be and their lasting impact on modern views of mental health. People are often intrigued by the supernatural and will find value by following Spirit Shack who covers an array of topics to do with ghosts and effective ways to deal with them.

Mentally ill


Historical Context of Mental Illness and Possession

In examining the historical landscape of mental health treatment, one is confronted with a haunting narrative steeped in misunderstanding and cruelty. For much of human history, the lens through which society viewed mental illness was clouded by superstition, myth, and religious dogma. Tragically, these misconceptions led to dire consequences for those suffering from psychological disorders.

During medieval times, the prevailing belief was that abnormal behaviors signaled possession by demonic forces. Such individuals were subjected to treatments that, by today’s standards, are harrowing.


Exorcisms, often administered by priests or religious figures, were the primary recourse. Incantations and prayers were uttered over the afflicted, accompanied by medicinal concoctions. In extreme cases, trephining was employed—a procedure involving drilling a small hole in the skull to supposedly release malevolent spirits. Regrettably, these attempts at treatment often resulted in the demise of the individual.

The lens of suspicion extended further during the late 1400s to the late 1600s, a period marked by the witch trials. Some religious factions propagated beliefs that certain individuals had struck pacts with the devil, engaging in unspeakable acts like the alleged consumption of infants. These individuals, often those displaying signs of mental illness, were branded as witches and subjected to trials that culminated in their condemnation and execution, frequently by burning at the stake. The toll was staggering, with tens of thousands estimated to have met this grim fate worldwide.

The prevailing theory of psychopathology in these eras centered on attributing mental illness to demonic possession or the influence of malevolent forces. Such misconceptions perpetuated an environment of fear, misunderstanding, and, tragically, inhumane treatment for those grappling with psychological disorders. The historical treatment of the mentally ill stands as a stark testament to the depth of societal misconceptions and the profound need for enlightened perspectives in mental health care.

Mental Health in Ancient Civilizations: From Egypt to Rome

In ancient times, mental illness was often attributed to supernatural causes. Civilizations like Egypt, Greece, and Rome saw these conditions as punishments from gods or the work of evil spirits. This era also witnessed the emergence of medical theories, such as those proposed by Hippocrates, who argued for a physical cause of mental ailments, though these ideas gained limited traction.

Medieval Misconceptions: Religion’s Role in Mental Health

During the medieval period, the Church’s influence in Europe led to the interpretation of mental illness as a sign of demonic possession or divine displeasure. Religious rituals, including exorcisms, were common practices, while the nascent medical explanations were overshadowed by the Church’s authority. Asylums began to appear, initially as sanctuaries but later turning into places of confinement.


From Exorcisms to Medical Treatment: Evolving Approaches

Society’s perception of mental illness greatly influenced its treatment. The mentally ill were often feared, ostracized, or ridiculed, leading to inhumane treatment and confinement. The prevailing view of mental illness as a moral or spiritual failing rather than a medical condition perpetuated these abusive practices.

Legacy and Lessons: How History Shapes Modern Mental Health

The Enlightenment era marked a shift towards reason and science, paving the way for more humane approaches to mental health. Figures like Philippe Pinel championed the moral treatment of the mentally ill, although the deep-seated beliefs and practices of the past continued to influence treatment approaches.

Challenging Stigmas: Overcoming Historical Misunderstandings

The historical understanding of mental illness still impacts current attitudes and treatment methods. While medical science has advanced, stigma and misconceptions persist, rooted in centuries of misunderstanding.

Recognizing this historical context is crucial in addressing present challenges and improving mental health care.


The belief that the mentally ill were possessed before the 19th century reflects a complex interplay of religious, social, and scientific perceptions through various historical periods.


This journey from ancient superstitions to the dawn of enlightened medical understanding underscores the evolution of mental health perceptions.

Today’s attitudes and treatments are a direct legacy of this history, highlighting the importance of understanding the past to effectively address current and future mental health challenges.

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Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is a blogger and writer who expresses her ideas and thoughts through her writings. She loves to get engaged with the readers who are seeking for informative contents on various niches over the internet. She is a featured blogger at various high authority blogs and magazines in which she shared her research and experience with the vast online community.

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