Complementary Therapies

The term ‘complementary therapy’ is generally used to indicate therapies that differ from orthodox Western medicine, and that may be used to complement, support, or sometimes to replace it.

The term ‘alternative therapy’ is used for therapies that offer alternatives to orthodox Western medicine. However, although some therapists claim that their therapy provides an alternative, such claims should always be treated with caution. No therapy should be considered as proven to be safe and effective if service users have not been involved in its design and evaluation.

There are many different complementary therapies, including:

  • aromatherapy
  • anthroposophy
  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Bach Flower Remedies
  • exercise
  • movement and relaxation
  • healing and touch therapies
  • herbal medicine (Western)
  • homeopathy
  • hypnotherapy
  • massage
  • naturopathy
  • nutritional therapy
  • reflexology
  • traditional Chinese medicine
  • transcendental meditation and yoga.

The use of complementary therapies

A number of factors have contributed to a general rise in interest in complementary therapies. There has been an increase in the use of complementary therapies within the NHS, particularly among nurses.

Continued dissatisfaction with psychiatric treatments among mental health service users has led to the search for safer or more effective alternatives. In some cases, this search has focused on finding ways of managing the side effects of psychotropic medication.

However, a number of factors continue to limit the use of complementary therapies. These include lack of resources in the NHS and absence of adequate research evidence for their efficacy.

There are also concerns about the regulation, training and registration of complementary therapy practitioners. A new regulatory body, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), was introduced with government backing in 2008. People using complementary therapists are recommended to check they are registered with this body.
Finally, political opposition to complementary therapies from healthcare professionals continues to flourish, despite the growing body of evidence in their favour.

Effectiveness for treating mental health problems

There is some research into the uses of complementary therapies for treating mental health problems.

  • Acupuncture can have a positive effect for some people diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • Homeopathy has been shown to help people with severe mental health problems to recover, if used over long periods and if used alongside conventional antipsychotic medication.
  • Herbal medicines have been linked to the relief of mild to moderate depression.
  • Massage has been shown to reduce levels of anxiety, stress and depression in some people. 
  • Reflexology has been shown to aid relaxation, relieve stress and restore energy. It can help to reduce the side-effects of psychotropic medication and can moderate the highs and lows of mood swings.
  • Research into nutritional and dietary medicine has demonstrated that food sensitivities may cause psychiatric symptoms, whilst a lack of folic acid has been associated with depression and schizophrenia and the supplementation of certain amino acids has been shown to relieve depression.
  • Transcendental Meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in reducing stress, tension and anxiety and in alleviating mental distress.

It is clear that more research needs to be undertaken. Much of the existing research into the use of complementary therapies in mental health is in the form of case reports only; few comprehensive clinical trials or research reviews have been conducted. Where research does exist, it is often difficult to access.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that mental health service users want greater access to complementary therapies and that, where these are provided, they are well-received and helpful. However, given the current demand from the NHS Executive for evidence-based medicine, more investment in good quality research, service development and training is needed if there is to be progress towards an integrated and holistic mental health service that provides real choice for service users.


Information from Mental Health Foundation

Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health Foundation
The Royal College Of Psychiatrists