The Limitations of Western Medicine in Treating Mental Health Disorders

Hokey, coo coo, and hippy. These are all words that I have heard used to describe some treatment models for mental health. I understand, it’s not the traditional “diagnose and medicate” ways of western medicine. For those of us who have no exposure to medical systems outside western culture it sounds…odd. But, what if they help? What if treatment methods from other parts of the world actually do provide healing and relief, and we are just too immersed in the western society beliefs to embrace it?

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that medications have a place in our society and are very much helpful in some situations. For some, it is unavoidable and even necessary. AND…I think medications are prescribed too much for almost every issue. Anxiety? Depression? Fatigue? Pain? There’s medications for that. But what if medications are treating the symptoms and not the root cause? What if it is only adding to the problems?

Being a Licensed Professional Counselor in the mental health world, this is something I think about frequently. It is my job to continually read up on the latest evidenced-based treatments and to research solutions. This has led me to learn more about, and get training in, some treatment models such as Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Mindfulness and Meditation, and Somatic Experiencing/ Somatic Psychotherapy. The evidence behind these models, as well as others, is that they are extremely effective. Although they may not be effective for every person out there, what I frequently hear is that clients experience more progress in less amount of time. They walk away not only with reduced frequency and intensity in their symptoms, but other bonuses such as increased self-esteem, assertiveness, and life satisfaction. And yet, these treatment models are met with, at best, hesitancy because they sound “hokey.” Granted, these models are not necessarily “eastern” models. But they do incorporate aspects such as the unconscious, mindfulness, meditation, and body oriented approaches that frequently stems from cultures outside of the USA. Let me give you an example to illustrate this point.

I once had a client that struggled with Dependent Personality Disorder. To keep this client’s identifying information confidential, I will just refer to this person as “client.” Client experienced inability to make decisions without others input, needing excessive amounts of reassurance, being easily hurt by disapproval and criticism, feeling isolated and nervous when alone, and fearing abandonment. These symptoms can be normal for anyone and not be considered a disorder. However, this client’s symptoms were extreme to the point where client was unable to participate in work effectively, among other areas of life, due to the severity of symptoms. Client experienced comorbid symptoms of depression and anxiety–which meant client was unable to keep the house organized or clean, wash their clothes, and shower consistently. Client was enmeshed with others to the point of being unhealthy. When I provided client with a sheet on Dependent Personality Disorder and had them read through the diagnostic criteria, their response was “yep, I check just about all the boxes.”

We discussed how Dependent Personality Disorder, and many personality disorders in general, often stem from childhood abuse or neglect, but can also result from experiences in adulthood such as abusive dating relationships. We discussed how one of the treatment models recommended for personality disorders is Internal Family Systems. To summarize, this model follows the belief that we all have an “inner child or children” from experiences in our past. We have this inner child that maintains the same age and struggles that we carry with us even as adults. Some people are fond of this idea, already noticing that they feel like they have “parts” to themselves. Some, like this client, think this model sounds “hokey.”

Another example is many clients of mine. Being a trauma therapist, I frequently hear complaints of physical issues that accompany their mental health concerns. Some of the most frequent physical issues I hear are headaches/migraines, gastrointestinal issues (e.g. IBS), Hashimoto’s, chronic pain, thyroid, weight gain, fainting, and so much more. These clients go to doctor after doctor, being told their symptoms are this or that, or being told there are no answers for their symptoms. I’m not a medical doctor, these healthcare providers may know more about these issues than I do. But what I do know is that the body is a messenger. And when the body is sending messages like this, it is most often with individuals who are experiencing, or have experienced, some sort of impactful psychological and/or social stressors. And yet, we send these people for more medications.

I get it, when I first learned about these types of models, I frequently thought “okay that’s fine and dandy, but what about the things that ACTUALLY produce results? That are scientific?” It took me awhile to come around to the idea of these models being both scientific and effective. But it’s true, these models have excellent results in research studies. They are shown to be effective in processing past wounds, reducing the intensity and frequency of current symptoms, and creating a better quality of life in the client’s present and future.

I’ve noticed that some medical professionals, mental health professionals, and other related professionals are starting to come around to the idea. More and more healthcare providers are recognizing the limitations of western medicine and the potential negative effects of “diagnose and medicate.” I myself have noticed this with my own healthcare providers. My primary care physician has readily agreed with me that he does not want to add medications to relieve my symptoms. Instead, he has worked with me on what he calls “total wellness.” Incorporating exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management changes to reduce symptoms. I am beyond happy to see this becoming more common!

So, where do we go from here? Well, that is where I struggle as well. You see, the more I learn about ways of approaching ailments outside of traditional western medicine, the more my mind is opened to BETTER. But, we still have our culture to deal with. Our culture within America is to hustle, become rich, be competitive, have fancy belongings, and ignore any mental/physical issues. Culture is a huge influencer on everything–politics, policy, insurance companies, treatment models, beliefs, etc. You name it, and culture has a role in it. This is going to be a big thing to overcome. But, I keep my hope alive. These medical professionals doing research and bringing their ideas into their worlds are influencing this change. Individuals who are choosing their own path rather than the path of the majority are influencing this change.

For now, I encourage each of us to begin listening to our bodies. What are our bodies telling us? What pains, emotions, and physical sensations are we noticing? How long have we noticed these? What was going on when these began? Deciphering these messages and working through the mental-social-physical implications are an absolute MUST for holistic health and wellness.

Mental health is always connected to the body.




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