What complementary and alternative therapies have to offer mental health service users/survivors

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This essay will begin by looking at the meaning of complementary and alternative therapies; as the name suggests, complementary therapies usually complement or work alongside mainstream medicine while alternative therapies offer treatments that can replace orthodox medical treatment altogether.

Complementary and alternative therapies which are often abbreviated to CAMs include approaches to health that are based on traditional healing methods from non-western cultures. Another definition of complementary and alternative approaches is that they are:

“a broad domain of healing resources that encompass all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health systems of a particular society or culture in a given historical period”{the Cochrane collaboration, quoted in house of lords,2000,para. 1.12}.

The use of CAMs are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. This could be as a result of people trying and finding the CAM methods very effective; another way to try and understand the change is to see it as a reaction against orthodox medicine.

Surveys carried out showed that in recent times, people are more likely to question authority and less likely to trust expert opinion than they did in the past. The general medical council has described this shift in attitudes as ‘a flight from science’, which could be attributed to the media’s unbalanced reporting of health related issues such as genetically modified food(house of lords 2000). A good example of people questioning expert opinion is the health debate about the measles, mumps and rubella(MMR) vaccine(unit 7). An initial research of the vaccine showed that a combination of the three virus strains contained in MMR may overload the body’s immune system and give rise to certain complications and a later one saw the controversial vaccine as a safe and effective way to protect children from disease (BBC news: health 2003)(reading 8).

Another explanation for the increased popularity of CAMs is that people tend to try it more because of what they have to offer; I looked into the yellow pages and was surprised to see how many CAMs were in my area. Most of them made claims about the therapeutic effect it would have as well as complete relaxation, stress relief, relief from physical pain, weight loss and so much more. The information I got about the CAMs was so interesting and convincing that I have decided to try out acupuncture myself. If I felt that way, then certainly most people would.

The emphasis on natural remedies and treatments and a holistic approach to health are regarded as central features of complementary approaches. Furthermore, CAMs have become even more popular in the UK because being a multicultural society, the UK welcomes views and experiences of people from diverse cultures and this has helped to raise awareness of the different traditions of countries such as china where CAMs dominate orthodox medicine, and India.

This essay will now explore some of the alternative therapies:

* Acupuncture: involves inserting small needles into various points in the body to stimulate nerve impulses.

* Chiropractic: used almost entirely to treat musculo-skeletal complaints through adjusting muscles, tendons and joints and using manipulation and massage techniques.

* Herbal medicine: a system of medicine which uses various remedies derived from plants and plant extracts to treat disorders and maintain good health.

* Homeopathy: a therapy based on the theory of treating like with like. Homeopathic remedies use highly diluted substances that if given in higher doses to a healthy person would produce the symptoms that the dilutions are being given to treat. In assessing the patient, homeopaths often take into account a range of physical, emotional and lifestyle factors which contribute to the diagnosis.

* Osteopathy: mainstream osteopathy focuses on musculo-skeletal problems but historically differs from chiropractic in its underlying theory that it is impairment of blood supply not nerve supply that leads to problems.

And here are some of the complementary therapies:

* Alexander technique: suggests that the way a person uses their body affects their general health. This technique encourages people to optimise their health by teaching them to stand, sit and move according to the body’s natural design and function.

* Aromatherapy: use of plant extract oils inhaled, used as a massage oil or occasionally ingested.

* Hypnotherapy: the use of hypnosis in treating behavioural disease and dysfunction, principally mental disorders.

* Healing: a system of spiritual healing, sometimes based on prayer and religious beliefs, that attempts to tackle illness through non-physical means, usually by directing thoughts towards an individual.

* Yoga: a system of adopting postures with related exercises designed to promote spiritual and physical wellbeing.

The person as an individual is at the centre of a holistic approach, it also encompasses the physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and emotional aspects of one’s life and from looking at the CAM therapies above, we can see that they all see the person as a whole; the treatments involves empowering peoples’ spirituality, believing that people have the potential to heal their emotional and physical imbalances naturally. I would therefore consider them to be holistic.

This could be the reason why they appeal more to mental health service users/survivors; the demand for more holistic approaches to mental health is increasing.

One service user said that doctors see you in clinical terms whereas alternative therapists see you in holistic terms. Another thought that CAMs were very helpful and most expressed appreciation of the approach taken by the therapist, the time and attention given to them, or the opportunity to take some control over their own health or lives.

Most service users when asked agreed that the drugs given to them by doctor often had side effects such as confusion, and were generally damaging and distressing. This is why mainstream medical approaches to mental health are so unsatisfactory for many service users. In addition, it is not just about what is prescribed, but how consultations are set up and carried out that is problematic.

* Unlike conventional medicine, CAMs have “time and attention” to offer as well as choice since it offers a wide range of treatments.

* CAM therapists tend to focus on a persons overall sense of wellbeing, their personal experiences, and the social context within which they are living.

* Compared to conventional practitioners, consultations are much longer, more detailed and thorough and in a pleasant environment.

* Therapists have good communication skills, active listening skills and create relationships based on openness, warmth and trust.

* They often specialise in dealing with health problems that are difficult to define.

CAMs appear to be wonderful having so much to offer however there is argument that there is insufficient evidence for its effectiveness. Those who have benefited from CAMs argue that their accounts should be evidence enough; however only research based on larger-scale studies might be considered ‘real evidence.

One of the common criticisms of CAMs is that they confuse real beneficial outcomes of the treatments they offer with the placebo effect, where belief in a treatment leads to improvement regardless of what the treatment actually involves. The importance of psychological factors such as expectations and attitudes in influencing the impact of treatments falls under the general description of ‘placebo effect’, which is defined as:

The therapeutic impact of ‘non-specific’ or ‘incidental’ treatment ingredients, as opposed to the therapeutic impact that can be directly attributed to the specific, characteristic action of the treatment.

The placebo effect has been found in relation to many health problems such as blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer; certain researches strongly suggests that the placebo effect should be taken more seriously and warrants more research, including within the field of CAMs.

Finally, having explored the benefits that people experiencing mental health problems may gain from CAMs, it is also important that we look at what they may not offer like it might result in feelings of guilt or shame for service users if they do not experience any benefit from therapies.

There is also a danger that an individual can place their trust in a therapist who may not be properly trained or qualified and not subject to a professional regulatory framework.

In addition, it is also possible that service users/survivors may not be given much information about side effects, or details of what the approach is seeking to achieve; whether cure or just a reduction in symptoms. Finally, this essay has explored the fact that CAMs are increasingly popular in the UK due to the methods of consultation which renders a listening ear to those desperately looking for someone to talk to. More so, CAMs include approaches to health that are based on traditional healing methods. CAMs encompass the five dimensions of the holistic model; it has a holistic approach to it in the sense that it sees an individual in the context of their social background, their spirituality and psychological beliefs. I personally think the benefits of CAMs outweigh the pitfalls and I would be glad to try it out myself.

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