Matters of the Mind: Alternative Healing Techniques for Mood Disorders

As a caregiver and someone who is watching a loved one struggle with a mood disorder, figuring out if and how to involve alternative therapies is one more challenge.

Alternative therapies – techniques that usually fall outside of the realm of conventional treatment — is a hot topic for many traditional therapists and psychiatrists. It is certainly true that traditional therapy and medication or a combination thereof have provided relief for many suffering mental disease. Yet a great many other affected people don’t receive the relief they seek. And the truth is we don’t know how many people are actually “cured” or “healed” from traditional therapies. Perhaps this is why alternative therapies have assumed a place alongside conventional healing modes. In fact, they are also called “complimentary” therapies because they are often utilized in concert with traditional approaches.

When people feel bad, they usually start with a trip to a therapist who can conduct a screening, develop a diagnosis, and then recommend where to go for help. Typically, the standard treatment is talk therapy in conjunction with medication. As a result of managed care, increasingly people seek treatment first through their primary care physician, which has its own pros and cons. Caution is recommended, since mental illness is a specialty. You would not go to your primary care physician for heart surgery, so think twice about asking a primary care doctor to diagnose and treat you or a loved one for a mood disorder, such as depression or bi-polar disorder.

What role do alternative therapies play in treating mood disorders?

For many suffering from mood disorders, alternative therapies are used in conjunction with medication and/or talk therapy. Some of the more serious alternative treatments include: repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS); the use of lightboxes for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD); eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy; massage treatments; hypnosis; sleep deprivation therapy; Chinese herbal medicine; group therapies; support groups and psychosurgery.

Many people report being helped or even healed by alternative therapies. Exactly why or how the therapies work is not a question to be answered here. In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Soloman eloquently states: “Depression is a disease of thought processes and emotions, and if something changes your thought processes and emotions in the correct direction, that qualifies as a recovery. Frankly, I think that the best treatment for depression is belief, which is in itself far more essential than what you believe in.”

Simply put, a great variety of factors – including situation, openness, genetics, sociological and physiological issues — all play a role in the “healing” factor. Very often there is no “cure” and the pain may or may not subside over time with or without help from medication therapy and other methods of alternative healing. Still, who are we to instruct the person struggling with mental disease to stop searching for ways to assuage their pain?

If your loved one is struggling with depression, for example, and wants to try alternative therapies how should you respond? This may have more to do with your finances than anything else. But based on Mr. Soloman’s thorough examination of depression, it is a good bet that supporting your loved one’s search is not meaningless if they hold a belief in the cure.

Suggestions and ideas for offering support to someone with a mood disorder who is interested in alternative therapies:

1.Assist them in getting educated. Read everything you can about potential therapies. Keep an open mind and curiosity about the various approaches that interest them.

2. Seek advice from on line support groups for people who have gone through the types of therapies you are investigating. Real stories from real people can provide useful information.

3. Find the best in the field. If your loved one wants to try hypnosis, EMDR, or other type of therapy, find the best people available to provide it. Treat this as you might a research project and get the best information and medical help possible. Many traditional therapists increasingly are adding techniques like EMDR to their repertoire. Getting a referral from a professional is usually preferable to finding someone in the yellow pages.

4. Don’t give up your existing support system (e.g., individual or group therapy and/or medication).

5. Remember, these therapies cost money and most often are not covered by insurance, so be mindful of prioritizing and setting limits if finances are a factor. Occasionally, alternative treatments are available at low or no cost through community agencies or medical institutions, which could offer the opportunity to try a particular therapy and perhaps arrange for affordable, quality treatment. But usually these therapies are an out-of-pocket expense. In the end, alleviating personal pain is the ongoing, consistent goal. For some, it is critical that they receive professional help in conjunction with alternative therapies. For others, the quest might involve healing of a different sort. Keep an open mind and, as always, don’t go it alone: seek professional guidance in support of getting well.