Talk isn’t cheap, but it is effective

You know the old saying that “talk is cheap.” It certainly applies in business. But when it comes to mental health, talk really is worth something after all.

Unfortunately, for a long time now, mental health professionals have stopped talking to their depressed patients. They put more emphasis on finding the “right” drug to help restore the “chemical imbalances” they believe must underlie every mental condition. And many mental health professionals show no signs of acknowledging the old characteristics of spirit, soul, morale, or the abandoned “moral therapies” of a century ago.

Instead, they make their patients play the lottery, handing out little slips of paper with different words on them (drug names) hoping that one might eventually hit the mark. But hitting the mark doesn’t happen very often. In fact, research shows that just one out of seven antidepressant drugs hits it right.

Yet, in a study I reported on last year, even for that one in seven, the drugs only worked when the patient and doctor really believed they would work. In other words, the drugs offer patients nothing more than the old-fashioned placebo effect.

It would be better to give a little sugar pill as a placebo. Or better yet–how about doctors actually try talking to their patients, as they did in the old days?

Thankfully, some researchers have recently “re-discovered” that talking to their depressed patients actually helps.

In fact, a new study found that severely depressed patients who received talk therapy had fewer suicide attempts and deaths than patients who received standard drug therapy.

Researchers followed 5,000 men and women with clinical depression at high risk of suicide. Ironically, this study occurred in Denmark, popularly said to have the happiest population on Earth.

One group of patients underwent six to 10 sessions of psychosocial counseling after attempting deliberate self-harm. Over the following year, these patients experienced 27 percent fewer suicide attempts and 38 percent fewer deaths compared to those who received standard drug treatment. Plus, the beneficial effects of just these few counseling sessions had long-lasting effects. In fact, the patients who received counseling had 26 percent fewer suicides occurring over the following five years.

The lead author from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, said, “We have evidence that psychosocial treatment which provides support–not medication–is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide.” He continued, “it might be valuable to broadly implement therapy programs for all people who have attempted suicide in the past.”

Imagine that. Talking to the patient actually has strong benefits.

The research was published in the January 2015 issue of the prestigious British medical journal Lancet Psychiatry. But the date could have just as easily been 1975, 1915, or even 1875.

Why do we have to keep re-discovering the same truths over and over again? And when did the idea of talking to mentally ill patients to decrease suicide risk become so revolutionary? Trained members of law enforcement and help lines can talk suicidal people off the proverbial (and occasionally literal) ledge–why not health professionals?

Unfortunately, many mental health professionals don’t know the latest science (and don’t remember what we already knew). They still give their depressed patients drugs, which actually increase the risk of suicide. The drugs possibly even contribute to mass shootings and homicides.

The lame-stream media and politically correct–including the new Johnny-Come-Lately, Johnny-One-Note, U.S. Surgeon General–quickly and reflexively blame guns whenever there is a shooting. But this new Surgeon General, for one, should look into the effects of antidepressant drugs–a topic he should actually be expected to know about in his new position.

The clues about the uselessness of antidepressant drugs to treat depression, let alone prevent suicide, have actually been accumulating since 2002. That year, a Harvard study showed no benefit for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) drugs, nor for St. John’s Wort, compared to placebo in clinical depression.

That’s right.

Neither the drug or the herb worked better than the placebo in that study.

But the placebo in that study wasn’t a sugar pill. It was counseling.

In fact, all the patients received 16 hours of intensive psychosocial counseling from a highly skilled mental health professional as a “placebo,” so nobody would be left to suffer. And as it turned out, the lucky patients who received only the placebo had good outcomes.

Over the years, medical researchers, working down in their silos, designed many expensive, but ridiculous studies where the treatment they called a “placebo” was actually a real, active treatment.

In fact, there are so many of these kinds of research problems, I added an entire chapter on them in the new, 5th edition of my medical textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, published by Elsevier Health Sciences, London and St. Louis, 2015. This edition just came out in print after 20 years of continuous prior editions as our “20th Anniversary Edition.”

My textbook covers thousands of scientific studies of all the medical evidence for the safety and effectiveness of complementary/alternative, natural, and nutritional medicine.

So–the next time your doctor tries to tell you there’s “no evidence” for natural approaches for depression or just about any other health problem, get him or her a copy of this book. It might be the best investment you ever make in your health.


  1. “Short-term and long-term effects of psychosocial therapy for people after deliberate self-harm: a register-based, nationwide multicentre study using propensity score matching,” Lancet Psychiatry January 2015; 2(1):49–58