The History Of Depression: How Depression And Treatments Have Changed Over Time

By: Stephanie Kirby

Updated February 17, 2021

The mental health industry has been working tirelessly to change the stigma that surrounds Mental Health. And, they have made huge improvements on what society knows and believes about mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and others. But unless you know the history of depression, you can't fathom how far they have come.

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Depression is not, by any means, a new problem that people live with. While it may seem like it's something that we are just starting to learn more and more about, it has been around for thousands of years that we know of.

There are accounts of depression from many different cultures in history. This includes the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, and Chinese. However, in our ancient history, people did not know what depression was. They had very different ideas about what caused it and how to treat it.

The Beginning Of The Depression

In the time of ancient Greece and Rome, depression was referred to as melancholia. During this time, it was believed that to treat any type of illness within the body all you needed to do was determine which part of the body needed to be treated. They believed the body was made up of four parts, including black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile. So, they believe melancholia was connected to black bile. They believed that there was too much cold black bile in a person that was suffering from depression. Therefore, to treat melancholia, the easiest answer was to reduce the black bile in the person's body. This was something that they tried through bloodletting, purging, and medication.

In ancient Greece, they also believed that if someone was just dealing with mild versions of depression that it was linked with creativity and genius. Many of the names that we know from this time, such as Plato and Socrates, were believed to have been dealing with mild depression.

However, there were other beliefs as to what caused depression as well. Some believed that it was from the gods, and others believed that it was from an imbalance of the psyche.

The Middle Ages

When the middle ages came about, many people linked depression with evil spirits and demons. Some thought it was witchcraft. This belief led to some of the worst forms of "treatment" that could be used. Instead of looking for ways to help those with "melancholia," people turned to things like exorcisms, burning, and drowning. This was also when people began to be locked up in places that were referred to as "lunatic asylums." And, there was lots of fear that surrounded depression. Some believed that if a person was suffering from depression that it was a sign of their sin.


The Renaissance

While some of these beliefs continued into the Renaissance, there were also many who began to look more for natural causes for and treatment of depression. People began to think that those with melancholy were higher-level thinkers searching for answers that they knew they would not be able to find.

During this time, some like Robert Burton, in 1621 started to talk about natural treatments such as exercise and dieting. They also started to use forms of treatment, such as music therapy, travel, and herbs.


During the Enlightenment era, the beliefs started to change again about depression. Some believed that the body worked like a machine and that if someone was depressed, it was a sign that something was not working properly within. Others believed that depression stemmed from life becoming too easy in their modern age. They believed that life lived in the country was more of a full life, and living in the city led to things such as depression because of the lazier life that people were living. Some doctors during this time even believed that aggression was where depression began.

Many started to believe that those that were suffering needed to work harder physically and get more exercise to correct the problem. There were also more extreme forms of treatment, such as a spinning stool. It was believed that spinning someone until they were dizzy could help to correct things in the brain to put an end to their depression. And, it's reported that Benjamin Franklin came up with one of the first types of electroshock therapy.

Victorian Era

A lot more progress was made during the Victorian era since psychology had become a study of its own. However, there was still much confusion about what caused depression and how to treat it. Many believed that depression was caused by the modern world. They thought that those that lived white collar lives were more susceptible and those that were blue collar workers we're immune to being depressed. Therefore, they believed that physical labor and exercise were important parts of treatment. They began creating sanitariums where people could go to be exposed to fresh air, exercise, and healthy eating.

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In the 19th century, those looking to make money started to sell nerve and brain pills to people that were suffering from melancholy. And, it wasn't until this time in history when people started to connect melancholy with emotions. This is a significant shift in perspective because it helped doctors to begin to see those emotions and the way people think could also impact the body instead of it only working the other way.

As we neared the 1900s, a German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin began to separate melancholy based on levels of severity and started to make a push for treating it through medical intervention. Over the next hundred years, there were incredible leaps and bounds made in the understanding of depression and forms of treatment. Names such as Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and Adolf Meyer came onto the scene. They began to explore depression about grieving, love, genetics, and early childhood experiences. And, it was Adolf Meyer that separated the term melancholy from depression, thus giving us the medical term that we use today.

Where We Are Today

Today we have a more thorough understanding of the human brain, thought life, and our emotions. We have discovered that different parts of the brain control different things and more about how genetics work. There have been vast studies done on the chemicals in our brain and the effects that they have on our activity and behavior.

There was also a lot of progress made in 1952 when mental health professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists created the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This helped to create more formal and standardized treatments.

In the mid-twentieth century, there was also more work done in the discovery of pharmaceutical drugs that could help with mental states. However, through the 1970s, the main form of therapy for depression continued to be based on Freudian psychoanalysis, including talk therapy.

For many years the use of antidepressants continued to grow with some believing it to be the best form of treatment for depression.

The DSM also continued to be updated over the years as they began to break out and break down different forms of depression. This included separating things like anxiety from depression. And, they began to come up with a list of symptoms that could be used to diagnose different forms of depression.

With all of the knowledge that psychologist and psychiatrist have made, we have continued to find new forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that targets helping patients learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and other forms of coping strategies to deal with depression.

Long gone are the days of believing that people are possessed because they are depressed and forms of treatment such as exorcism and drowning.

We have learned over the years that generally a combination of treatment is best used instead of just one form of treatment. And, we have learned the importance of self-care such as eating right and exercising just like many people have theorized throughout history. However, we also understand the importance of formalized therapy in the form of medication and therapy to treat depression.

You Can Reach Out For Help


If you're struggling with depression, it's important for you to know that there are multiple forms of therapy available to help you overcome it. Unlike what was believed in ancient history, depression is a treatable health condition. If you've never talked to anyone about what you are feeling or your symptoms before, contact a local therapist or an online therapist to start the process. With all the modern discoveries that we have and the treatment that is at our fingertips, such as online counseling, there is no reason for anyone to have to continue to live with and suffer through depression.

And while we do have some way to go on ending the stigma that surrounds Mental Health, we have come incredibly far throughout our history. But, the rate of depression continues to increase in America, which is something that needs to be addressed. If you think that you may be dealing with it, it's time to get help.

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