Mental Health

Why are complementary approaches so popular?

Lesson 2

Given the increasingly significant role played by complementary and alternative therapies, it is important to understand why they are becoming so popular. There are two kinds of explanation for their increasing appeal, and both help to understand the shift in attitudes that has taken place. 

The first way to understand the change is to see it as a reaction against orthodox medicine. Major changes in public attitudes to scientific medicine began towards the end of the 20th century and are continuing.

The respect that people have for doctors and science in general, although it remains generally high, is more questioning and critical now than it was in the early 20th century. It is argued that people are more likely to question authority and less likely to trust 'expert' opinion than they were in the past.

The General Medical Council has described this shift in attitudes as 'a flight from science', which it attributes to unbalanced reporting in the media of health-related issues such as genetically modified food (House of Lords, 2000).

The health debate about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is another example of questioning expert opinion.

The second kind of explanation for the increased popularity of complementary responses emphasises the shift towards such approaches because of the inherent value of what they appear to offer. 

The emphasis on 'natural' remedies and treatments and a holistic approach to health are regarded as central features of complementary approaches. Multicultural societies and appreciation of the different views and experiences of people from diverse cultures have helped to raise awareness of the different medical traditions of countries such as China and India.

This has led to the re-evaluation of indigenous 'naturopathic' traditions such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage and nutritional therapies. Such therapies are often called 'holistic' because they tend not to separate mind and body but to see the person as a whole.

Such approaches are consistent with the demands of many mental health service users/survivors for more holistic approaches to mental health, and they are increasingly the focus of well-informed debates about treatments.

This is exemplified by Laura Stanton is steadfastly opposed experiences of using complementary therapies below.

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 where 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 21.

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 says.

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 approach.

'They need so much more emphasis on alternative healthcare,' she says.”

Laura Stanton 

Leason, 2003, p. 37)

Holistic approaches to health are very much concerned with the particular context in which a person becomes ill and with the interaction between practitioner and service user, as one GP argues below.


(Dixon, 2001, p. 41)

Perhaps our concepts of symptoms, disease and health are a little too narrow. Maybe we should consider wellbeing and quality of life as well when deciding whether a treatment works or not.

Patients seeing complementary therapists seem to frequently change their attitude to their problems, themselves and their lives generally.

Complementary medicine at its best is empowering. It encourages people to use and to recognise their own self-healing abilities and to develop more active approaches to life beyond the classic active/passive relationship of the conventional medical encounter.

Holistic practitioners argue that psychiatry has taken a wrong path by imitating the concreteness of physical science and engineering and has lost a sense of the complexity and individuality of a mental, emotional or spiritual disorder.

They believe that most people have the potential to heal their emotional and physical imbalances and disturbances naturally.

The role of the practitioner is therefore to help and support healing, not to try to 'cure' the person with strong physical interventions such as medicines and shock treatment.

So, one way of understanding the shift in attitudes towards health care in general is as a move away from an emphasis on 'cure' towards an emphasis on 'care' (O'Callaghan and Jordan, 2003). 

In any event, explaining the increasing appeal of complementary approaches is far from straightforward, as emphasised by this commentator:

(Mitchell, 2000, p. 334)

The reasons for the shift towards greater use of complementary therapies [by people with mental health problems] are complex and varied. Their appeal seems to extend far beyond any simplistic notions of narrowly defined effectiveness of treatment.

The attraction seems to lie in a mixture of their more egalitarian approach to the therapeutic relationship, their recognition of links between lifestyle and illness, the individual nature of the treatments offered and the success of treatments for symptom relief, along with a perceived relative lack of noxious side effects.

A central and crucial factor is their potential to bring meaning to the experience of suffering by making connections between physical, mental and spiritual circumstances and aspects of people's lives.

There is also evidence that shifts in attitudes towards health are closely related to economic factors. There appears to be a close relationship between affluence and the increased use of complementary approaches to health care (Ernst, 2000). 

Complementary and alternative approaches to health are consistent with an increasingly 'consumerist' approach to health care in general, where there is a desire for greater control on the part of consumers and health has become a 'commodity' which people expect to be able to buy (Easthope, 2003).

The BBC's survey into the use of complementary and alternative therapies (Ernst and White, 2000) estimated that £1.6bn is spent on such therapies every year in the UK. Not only are complementary approaches increasingly popular, they are therefore also increasingly 'big business':

“Alternative medicine was a 'cottage industry' in the 1970s. Like late nineteenth century orthodox medicine it was run by individual entrepreneurs with little capital and with materials that could be stored in one room or even carried in one bag. 

By the turn of the last century, the demand from consumers for its products and its therapies meant that many CAM businesses had been floated on the stock exchange.”

(Easthope, 2003, p. 2)

One extremely controversial issue in the mental health field is the close association which continues to exist between psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. 

The intensive use of drugs in mental health care has been attributed in part to the fact that it generates large amounts of income, in terms of both profit and funding for research. For many service users/survivors, this is one of the reasons why conventional drug treatments are regarded with apprehension or in some cases rejected outright.

If complementary and alternative approaches to health care are increasingly characterised by corporate interests, or big business, as argued by Easthope above, this may give cause for concern among many mental health service users/survivors.

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