I first had the idea to write a post on the medical system vs alternative treatments two years ago, and I’ve been mulling it over and meaning to write it ever since. I’ve paused because I believe that if I’m not careful that this could be a dangerous piece of writing – but, conversely (spurring me on), is the fact that I think this is a topic which is highly relevant and could benefit the many people who are trying to heal from past wounds or find a way forward in a world that is not designed to be kind.
Before we go on, I’d like you to stop and think about how you care for yourself. Do you take medication for your mental or physical health? Do you practice homeopathy and take herbal supplements? Do you practice yoga or meditation? Is it a combination of multiple different things? Whose opinion do you trust when it comes to making decisions about your healthcare?
I think that it is important that you know my background. I’m a community-based mental health nurse. A considerable portion of my job involves talking to and advising patients (the people on my caseload) about their medication, as well as administering intramuscular depot antipsychotics. For those of you who don’t know, I had no experience in health care prior to beginning my nursing training. During lectures, I remember feeling uncomfortable with the knowledge that I was supposed to advocate for medication as a form of treatment. This was rooted entirely in my own experience of being mentally unwell postnatally, never being offered medication and thereby not taking any, and therefor being forced to find a way to help myself that wasn’t a part of the medical model. In a nutshell, I was uncomfortable due to my inexperience. Significantly, I have now seen – and know – the profound impact that the correct medication can have on one’s quality of life, safety and future prospects. I am coming to this conversation from the place of believing, inherently, in the huge value of both options.
This seems like an appropriate time to talk about what the medical model and alternative therapies actually are. The medical model is a “set of procedures in which all doctors are trained” (Laing 2018). For example, diseases or disorders are diagnosed through medical examinations, tests and symptom descriptions, and usually treated with medication. It is a health model which focuses on an evidence-based approach and cause and effect (ie. mental disorders are caused by physiological factors). One widely-acknowledged criticism of the medical model is that it discourages autonomy and patient empowerment (Swaine 2011). Complementary and alternative medicine is treatment that falls outside of mainstream medicine (the Western medical model is mainstream medicine). Complementary treatments are used alongside traditional medicine, while alternative treatments are used in place of them. There is usually far less evidence for these types of treatments, and the evidence that does exist is less robust and less reliable (smaller studies, for example). Some of the more well-known examples of complementary or alternative treatments are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal medicine, crystals, and yoga.
One of the things that makes many healthcare professionals nervous about these types of therapies is the potential for harm. This includes whether they are used alternatively or in a complimentary way. If there is less evidence for the effectiveness of something, that then means there is also less information about the risk is carries. If you are seriously unwell, it can be dangerous to choose a treatment plan that is based on something that has questionable evidence behind it. Some complimentary treatments can also interfere or interact with traditional medicine in a harmful way, for example some herbal medicines can interact with other (mainstream) medications. It is always best to consult your doctor before beginning or changing your treatment plan. If you would like to read a post detailing my experience with CBD oil, including how I developed a plan alongside my doctor to use it as a treatment for postnatal stress and low mood, you can click here.
Mental health problems are complex and multifaceted. They are influenced by multiple factors, including our social circumstances, feelings of purpose or meaning, and loneliness. Engaging with complementary or alternative therapies can sometimes have a holistic affect, meaning that they can positively impact more than one area of your life. For example, if you begin to practice yoga you might find that you start to develop a new sense of community. Other positives of practicing yoga are that it will (most likely) teach you new breathing techniques and it will improve your physical fitness – two more things which will be helpful to your mental health. The benefits of a new therapeutic activity can also be meaningful in ways which don’t directly relate to the activity itself (they’re side benefits, if you will). Here is a theoretical example of what I mean: let’s say you’ve always loved crystals and thought that you’d try using them as a complementary therapy. You aren’t severely unwell and because you are planning to use them in a complimentary way (not forgoing other needed treatments) the risk of harm is very low. Crystals don’t have an evidence-base to show that they are effective at treating any mental or physical health problem – however what you have found is that when you began exploring how to use them, is a welcoming online group and a kind shopkeeper at a local store which sells crystals, and this makes you feel less lonely and like you are part of a community. In short, the benefits, in this particular example, are less about the crystals and more about the process. You’ve also spent time engaging in something which gave you pleasure (because you’ve always liked crystals) and, generally-speaking, hobbies are good for your mental health.
Medication, for many people, enables them to get to a place where they feel capable of engaging with some other therapeutic work. The thought process being that if you need medication for your mental health that you also would benefit from something like talking therapy.
Not very long ago, I was at a GP appointment (I’ll spare you the details) and we began talking about how I might use coconut oil as a remedy for my issue at the time. This then evolved into a discussion about evidence, and how there isn’t any to show that coconut oil would be effective in treating what I needed to treat. His thought? There was very little motivation for anyone to carry out research on the medical benefits of coconut oil. You see, medical research is very expensive and time-consuming, and companies need to see a return on their investments. No money = no motivation. My point in sharing this particular anecdote is to encourage you to think critically but also to consider the whole picture.
Something which I’ve recently begun to think about and explore, is the fact that research into – and appreciation for – women’s health is lacking. Medical data tends to be collected by male researchers from a sample that is dominated by men, and then applied to the ‘small men’ (aka women). Women-specific issues, such as (peri)menopause and reproductive health, are still poorly understood. Hormonal changes can, and do, have a big impact on women’s mental health, and it is difficult to manage or treat something that you don’t understand.
Personally, I like to think about the impact that my decisions could have. There will always be things that you can’t foresee but I still find it a helpful strategy, especially when I’m thinking about doing something that doesn’t have much of an evidence base behind it. It is vital to consider what the risks are, as well as figure out a backup plan. Are you acutely or severely unwell? This makes alternative or non-evidence backed treatment far more risky. Have you spoken to your doctor about your plan? Do you have a timeframe that you’ve agreed on which you’re going to stick to when trying an alternative option, before you see your doctor and revaluate? It is notable that it’s a privilege to have this kind of relationship with your doctor, however this should be what we’re all aiming for. Your doctor is a medical expert, you are the expert on yourself; you should work together collaboratively.
If you were hoping that I was going to give you all the answers when you sat down to read this post than I’m sorry to disappoint you. The truth of it is that no-one could give you a clear, blanket instruction – one which would be accurate anyway! It would also be irresponsible to try (and you should be very wary of anyone offering this type of guidance to you online). There is far too much nuance and complexity with both people and every kind of health treatment. The best advice that I could possibly give is to encourage you to think critically about your decisions – all of them, but especially your healthcare decisions. I wrote a blog post about critical thinking and judging the trustworthiness of online information, you can read it here. It compliments this post nicely, and will help you to keep yourself safe in an age where self-proclaimed experts are popping up all over the internet.
I truly hope you continue to think about all of the many things which I touched on within this blog post. I, personally, spend a great deal of time and energy considering all of this. There is much more that I could say about everything that was covered but I thought a brief overview would be what is most helpful you. Is there anything that you’d like to know more about? Did you learn anything new – was anything surprising to you? Pop it in a comment below, I promise to read it and get back to you.
National Health Service (NHS) (2022). Complementary and alternative medicine. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/
Swaine, Z. (2011). Medical Model. In: Kreutzer, J.S., DeLuca, J., Caplan, B. (eds) Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79948-3_2131
Laing RD. The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. Routledge; 2018.