Complementary and alternative treatments
Some people with mental health problems find using complementary and alternative treatments helpful. This factsheet explains what complementary therapies are and how you can get them.
- Complementary and alternative treatments are health-related treatments which are not part of mainstream medical care. They are thought to increase wellbeing, aid relaxation and promote good mental health.
- You can use complementary and alternative treatments for different mental health needs.
- There is not much research about how well complementary and alternative therapies work.
- Not all complementary and alternative therapies are regulated. It is important to make sure the person who gives you the therapy is qualified.
About complementary treatments
Complementary and alternative treatments are not part of mainstream care. This means that you are unlikely to get this type of treatment through the NHS. They can be used to complement your NHS treatment or in some cases, as an alternative to NHS treatment. You may hear them being called ‘holistic treatments’.
Different complementary and alternative treatments can help with different symptoms. They can focus on your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
Usage for mental illness
You can use complementary and alternative treatments with other treatments but there is a not much scientific evidence to say they can help treat mental illness. Many people find them useful, even though there isn’t much evidence. They can be useful to deal with side effects of medication and symptoms of mental illness.
Speak to your GP or mental health team if you are interested in complementary and alternative treatments.
Types of complementary treatment
There are many different types of complementary and alternative treatments, these include:
- Herbal Medicine
- Spiritual/ energy healing
Acupuncture is based on an ancient Chinese treatment. An acupuncture practitioner will put small, thin needles into your skin at certain points on your body. The needles can help to start the healing process in your body.
Some acupuncture practitioners say it can be used to treat mental health conditions. There is some research into its uses for depression, schizophrenia and insomnia. But there is not much scientific evidence to prove that acupuncture is good at treating mental illness.
Aromatherapy uses essential oils to improve health and wellbeing. Essential oils are plant extracts. Some oils can be used to treat mental and emotional health problems. You can use aromatherapy oils through massage, in the bath or by breathing them in. Research has shown that aromatherapy can be useful to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Herbal medicine is made from plants. Sometimes it is called herbal remedies. Many mainstream drugs and medicines are based on herbal medicines. You can get herbal medicine in different forms such as liquid, powder or cream. A qualified herbalist can prescribe herbal medicine to use alongside other medications and treatment. Sometimes herbal medication can have a bad effect on a condition that you have or medication that you take. You should always talk to your doctor or a pharmacist before taking herbal remedies.
The table below has some of the common herbal remedies used for treating mental health conditions.
Homeopathy is based on the idea that a substance that causes certain symptoms can also help to reduce those symptoms. Substances are watered down and shaken. Homeopathy practitioners believe that the substance will be more effective to treat symptoms if it is watered down by a large amount.
There are homeopathic treatments for different health conditions including depression and anxiety.
The National Institute of Care Excellence (NICE) does not recommend homeopathic medicines for the treatment of health conditions because there is not enough medical evidence that they work. But some NHS GPs and hospitals offer homeopathy.
A massage therapist will use their hands to rub your body to help get rid of tension and help you to relax. There are different types of massage including the following:
- Swedish massage: Light strokes are used to relax muscles to relieve tension.
- Shiatsu massage: Pressure is put on certain points to help balance your energy.
Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness is a type of meditation. It is when you focus on your mind and body and is a way of paying attention to the present moment. An example would be to focus on your breathing. Think about how it feels when you breathe in and out. When you practice meditation or mindfulness you learn to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings. Once you are more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can learn to deal with them better.
Mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT) is a combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend MCBT to treat depression. A course of MBCT should last for 8 weeks. You will usually have MBCT in a group. Each session is 2 hours long. You should have 4 follow-up sessions in 12 months after the end of your therapy.
You can also get mindfulness courses through self-help guides or mobile apps.
You can find out more information about cognitive behavioural therapy here.
Spiritual and energy healing
People who use spiritual or energy healing believe that you have a ‘physical body’ and an ‘energy body’. Spiritual or energy healers believe that your ‘energy body’ affects your mental health. A practitioner helps to fix your energy body. They do this by putting their hands above your body in certain places. Reiki is a well known energy healing therapy in England.
Reiki may help with symptoms of depression and stress after 6 weekly sessions. There is not much research into the effects of energy healing for people with mental illness.
Yoga is an exercise. It has a focus on breathing techniques, strength and flexibility to improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Yoga can help to reduce depression and stress.
Where can I get alternative treatments?
The NHS does not usually offer complementary and alternative treatments. You may be able to get complementary and alternative treatments through the following ways:
- Private therapist or practitioner
- Alternative therapy centre
- Health spa
- Mental health charity
How do I choose a practitioner or therapist?
Complementary therapists do not have to register with a professional body to treat people. You should check if a private therapist is a member of a professional body such as the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). To become a member a therapist will have to meet certain standards set by the professional body. A therapist that is a member of a professional body will also have to follow the code of ethics and complaints procedure.
Many types of treatments have their own professional body. They set standards for their therapists to follow. They hold registers for qualified practitioners. There is a list of professional bodies at the end of this section.
Think about the following points when you choose your complementary therapist:
- Compare the cost of treatments.
- Make sure that you are not being over-charged.
- Ask the therapist about their qualifications, membership of a professional body and how long they have been practising.
- Always make sure the practitioner has the right insurance. Therapists should have insurance before they can become members of the CHNC or other professional bodies.
- Choose a complementary therapy that suits your needs. Other people may tell you what has worked for them. But remember that the results may be different for you.
- Know what to expect. Research the therapy. No reliable therapist should claim to be able to cure severe mental illness.
Ask your doctor or nurse for their advice. This is important if you want to try a therapy which involves medicine.
How much do complementary and alternative therapies cost?
Private therapists can be expensive. They can charge any price. Usually they will charge around £40-£70 per hour. You can ask your GP if the therapy you want is available on the NHS. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) may recommend a complementary or alternative treatment. You can ask your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) if the therapy is available in your area. You can find your local PALs on their website here.
You may be able to get low cost or free complementary and alternative treatment. But this is unusual. You can use an online search engine such as Google to see what is available in your local area.
Complementary and alternative medicine
The NHS has information about complementary and alternative treatments for some health needs through their website here.
The Alliance of Registered Homeopaths (ARH)
A UK professional organisation that supports and promotes a high standard of safe, effective homeopathic practice.
Telephone: 01825 714506
Address: Millbrook, Millbrook Hill, Nutley, East Sussex, TN22 3PJ
The Aromatherapy Council
A UK professional body that sets and maintain education standards for aromatherapy professionals.
The Association of Natural Medicine
The organisation runs training for all practitioners in the UK. They have a governing council which holds at least 8 meetings a year.
Telephone: 01376 502762
Address: 27 Braintree Road, Witham, Essex, CM8 2DD
Association of Reflexologists (AoR)
A UK professional regulatory body. They give advice to reflexologists and work with other regulatory bodies.
Telephone: 01823 351010
Address: Victoria House, Victoria Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 3FA
The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC)
A self-regulatory body of therapists who practice traditional acupuncture in the UK.
Telephone: 0208 735 0400
Address: 63 Jeddo Road, London, W12 9HQ
British Complementary Medicine Association
An international umbrella organisation for therapists and their clients.
Telephone: 0845 345 5977
Address: BCMA, P.O. Box 5122, Bournemouth, BH8 0WG
Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
An independent regulatory body for some complementary therapies.
Telephone: 020 3668 0406
Address: 46 – 48 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1AW
Complementary Medical Association
An association for complementary therapists in the UK. They promote ethical, responsible and professional complementary medicine.
Telephone: 0845 129 8434
Email: Contact form on website
The Complementary Therapies Association
An association that represents sports, spa and complementary therapists in the UK and Ireland.
Telephone: 0845 202 2941
Address: 2nd floor, Chiswick Gate, 598-608 Chiswick High Road, London W4 5RT
Federation of Holistic Therapists
The largest professional association for therapists in the UK and Ireland. Therapies include sports and remedial therapies, complementary healthcare and holistic beauty treatments.
Telephone: 023 8062 4350
Address: 18 Shakespeare Business Centre, Hathaway Close, Eastleigh, Hampshire, SO50 4SR
The National Institute of Medical Herbalists
A UK professional body representing herbal practitioners. You can search for qualified herbalists on their website. They also have an information service for professionals and the public about herbal medicine.
Telephone: 01392 426022
Address: Clover House, James Court, South Street, Exeter, EX1 1EE Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shiatsu Society UK
A non-profit organisation that represents practitioners and promotes professionalism.
Telephone: 0845 130 4560
Address: Shiatsu Society UK, P.O. Box 4580, Rugby, Warwickshire, CV21 9EL