Natural approaches for mental health slowly gain acceptance

Modern mainstream medicine still relies heavily on drug solutions to mental health problems.

But that’s a big mistake.

For one, as I reported on Tuesday, just 6 percent of new psychiatric drugs actually benefit the patient.

Secondly, this pharmaceutical approach seeks to correct some illusory “imbalance” of chemicals in the body. Albeit more subtle, it’s just as dangerous and misguided as the barbaric surgical approaches that were once performed—such as lobotomies—to get rid of some perceived malfunctioning part of the brain. (As you may recall, a lobotomy was infamously and inappropriately performed on John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary in 1941.)

Third, and perhaps most notably, this approach ignores the importance of the mind-body connection.

René Descartes, the brilliant 17th-century French philosopher, is often blamed for first separating the study of the mind from the study of the body. But it’s really an unfair accusation, as western medicine didn’t begin, in earnest, to look for pathological (physical) causes of mental disorders until the second half of the 19th century.

At that point, disorders like psychosis, which they called “dementia precox,” were thought to have had an organic, pathological cause.

On the flip side, western medicine mistakenly thought other disorders were inherently endogenous (without a pathological or physical cause). They called one of these endogenous disorders “general paresis of the insane” (GPI). But it turns out, the people diagnosed with GPI actually did have an infection of the brain caused by syphilis.

Then, came Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century…

Freud started out as a neuropathologist, also looking for pathological causes of mental illness. But he abandoned that approach to pursue “the passions of the mind.”

Mind and body are connected

To this day, scientists have yet to find associations between a pathological abnormality of the brain and common mental health conditions classified as neuroses or psychoses.

But don’t be fooled…that doesn’t mean the body and the mind aren’t connected.

They very much are connected. Which is why complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches—which acknowledge the mind-body connection—can help support mental health.

In fact, my colleague Dr. James Lake (who just contributed the new chapter on mental health in the new, 6th edition of my textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine) recently reported in Psychology Today that CAM approaches are now being widely used to treat mental health problems.

Adults with mental health conditions more likely to use CAM

According to recent surveys by the World Health Organization (WHO), adults worldwide with mental health conditions are much more likely to use CAM than adults without these conditions. In fact, according to these surveys, CAM was used by:

  • 14 percent of adults with a mood disorder
  • 16 percent with an anxiety disorder
  • 22 percent with a behavioral disorder

Plus, other data shows that people in the U.S. with mental health conditions opt for CAM treatments more often than the global population.

For example, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 40 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health diagnosis use CAM. Factors associated with greater CAM use included:

  • being female
  • being younger
  • completing college
  • residing west of the Mississippi
  • being employed
  • suffering functional limitations

About 15 years ago, I personally noticed opinions start to change within the mainstream psychology community about the benefits of CAM for mental health. Ilene Serlin, my colleague and a distinguished psychotherapist in San Francisco, asked me to come to the annual meetings of the American Psychological Association to present the research on CAM for mental health in the mid-2000s.

At one of these meetings, I had the opportunity to meet Janice Stern, an editor for Springer Health, who was launching new medical textbooks on the topic of mind-body medicine. That encounter led to a fruitful collaboration with Don McCown on mindfulness meditation, including two new books.

During the fall, as the days are growing shorter, it’s a great time to begin a new mindfulness meditation routine. So I encourage you to take a look at our book, New World Mindfulness. You can also talk to your practitioner about the benefits of other CAM approaches—such as acupuncture, hypnosis, or massage.

And in the meantime, I suggest taking this short quiz regarding “your emotional type” to help determine which natural approach may work best for you.

You can also refer to the January 2017 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter for how to beat depression without resorting to drugs (“My 8-step, drug-free plan to beating depression in later life”). If you’re not yet a subscriber, no worries. It only takes one click to sign up today!


“Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Mental Health.” Psychology Today, 6/21/19. (