Wacky, hippyish, weird… There are many derogatory words used
to describe complementary therapies. Yet many people, suffering
from a variety of conditions, are helped by the likes of
hypnotherapy, healing and herbalism with some claiming they are
more effective than conventional medical approaches.
But for people with mental health problems, medication remains the
most common treatment, accounting for as much as a quarter of all
drugs prescribed by the NHS, according to the charity Mind.
The side-effects of some psychiatric drugs are well documented, and
this, combined with a general dissatisfaction with the mental
health system, has led many users to seek alternative treatments.
And there are many to choose from. While some people find
relaxation therapies such as massage and aromatherapy beneficial,
others prefer more active methods such as exercise and dance, or
use acupuncture, homeopathy and nutritional therapy.
However, despite their popularity, the availability of
complementary therapies, particularly through the NHS, is
restricted. Lack of research into their effectiveness is partly to
blame, as well as concerns over regulation of treatments and
training of providers. In addition, scepticism remains among many
“By and large there is probably less of a stigma against
complementary therapists than there is against psychiatrists,” says
George Lewith, a doctor at the Centre for the Study of
“Of course there are still divisions between the conventional and
alternative but there is also a lot of mutual respect which has
been cultured by professionalism on both sides over the past 20
Lewith, who is also a senior research fellow at University of
Southampton School of Medicine, says there is good evidence that
herbal remedies and acupuncture can help depression and
circumstantial evidence that other approaches including
aromatherapy and homeopathy can be effective. But he emphasises
that without controlled trials providing hard evidence it is
difficult to be clear about what works with whom. “I get very good
results but I’m not sure whether it’s the homeopathy or because I
spend half an hour listening to their problems,” he says.
The client’s expectations and relationship with the therapist are
crucial in determining whether or not a treatment is effective.
Ingrid Collins, consultant psychologist at private healthcare
practice the London Medical Centre says that some practitioners,
whatever their techniques, are better than others at helping people
relax and “feel able to recover”.
“Generally people will have seen a friend or family member benefit
and come on personal recommendation,” says Collins, who is also a
registered spiritual healer. She feels that if complementary
therapies were made more available they would “save the NHS a
“I showed a GP how to give healing and her drug budget and referral
rates to hospital went down and her job satisfaction went up
through the roof,” she says.
There’s no denying that making complementary therapies more
available would be music to the ears of users. Last year Mind
launched its My Choice campaign, calling for GPs to offer more
treatment options to people with mental health problems. A survey
found that 98 per cent of patients visiting their GP with a mental
health problem were prescribed medication and more than a third who
had tried alternative treatments had to ask, and often pay, for it
“Our dream would be to see complementary therapy freely available
and integrated into the primary care system so people were not
jumping hurdles to get to it. They summon up the courage to go to
their GP and then have to summon it up again to go somewhere else,”
says Richard Brook, chief executive of Mind. People are starting to
recognise that some choices are “not just odd and bizarre but make
sense for some people”, he says, but adds there is still stigma
Reluctance among GPs is one thing, but what about the
psychiatrists, often seen as the staunchest advocates of the
medical model in mental illness? An informal working group on
complementary medicine at the Royal College of Psychiatrists is
currently going through the process of becoming a more established
special interest group, to reflect growing interest in the subject,
says Rachel Jenkins, visiting professor at the Institute of
She also highlights the lack of research but says it’s likely some
therapies are helpful: “There is a need for more research and
dialogue because even if therapies are shown not to help, some
clients will still use them and psychiatrists and GPs need to know
about it in case there is a clash.”
‘Healing lifted me’
“Anyone I’ve seen always comes across as very kind and a different
breed from doctors who have done all this training. Doctors see you
in clinical terms whereas alternative therapists see you in
holistic terms,” says Laura Stanton.
Now 27, she began suffering from depression in her early teens and
was prescribed anti-depressants, including lithium, at the age of
When coming off lithium, Stanton turned to herbal medicine which
she found particularly helpful. She saw a herbalist, who helped her
with a mixture that included St John’s Wort and ginger. “It
steadied my nervous system and she gave me a lot of support,” she
While Stanton speaks very highly of herbalism, she has also tried a
range of other therapies. She found weekly yoga helpful, modified
her diet after a food sensitivity test, and remembers “being
lifted” after attending a healing clinic. She also tried
homeopathy, which “felt like counselling”, and attended a cognitive
and behavioural therapy course.
Stanton is steadfastly opposed to the medical model and prefers
other approaches. “They need so much more emphasis on alternative
healthcare,” she says.
‘The changes were so powerful’
Gloria Thomas was helped so much by complementary therapies that
she’s now a practitioner herself. “The changes were so powerful. My
life changed completely,” she explains.
Thomas suffered from postnatal depression after her son was born
prematurely. A year after his birth she went to see a psychiatrist
who prescribed anti-depressants.
“Psychotherapy, counselling and group therapy did not help at all.
I was told I would be on medication for the rest of my life. I
decided to look for alternative means to combat depression,” she
She addressed her mental and emotional state through hypnotherapy
and neuro-linguistic programming which looks at subjective
experience. In addition she examined her nutrition and fitness, and
had acupuncture and healing. After seven years Thomas came off
medication, but says that she would never recommend anyone to just
stop taking it. “People ask whether they should stop taking
anti-depressants and I always say no. Work with complementary
health and when you feel ready to reduce the dose do it that way.
If you do it immediately you’re asking for trouble,” she
Thomas is now a hypnotherapist, master practitioner in
neuro-linguistic programming and a reiki healer, and sees clients
with depression, phobias and anxiety at Third Space Medicine in
“My depression was a miserable time but it was the making of me,”