Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Complementary & alternative medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are ways of treating health problems that are available outside conventional medicine and include:

  • Herbal medicines
  • Nutritional supplements, such as vitamins and minerals 
  • Acupuncture, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, massage and other physical treatments  
  • Meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques, yoga, tai chi

There is an important difference between 'complementary' and 'alternative' therapies. Complementary therapies may help people feel better or cope with their condition, but will not cure the condition. Complementary therapies can be used alongside usual treatment, whereas alternative therapies are generally used instead of conventional treatment. An alternative therapist may suggest an alternative approach will work better than conventional treatment.  But there is usually no scientific or medical evidence to back this up.  

What people found helpful and unhelpful

Many of the people we interviewed had tried one or more types of CAM because they wanted a - possibly “more natural” - substitute for prescribed medication (see 'Not taking prescribed medication') and wanted to alleviate symptoms, especially where work was suffering.  One man's mental health team recommended he try CAMs. 

People found some CAMs more helpful than others. Massage, tai chi and yoga were described as having been helpful for relaxation. One woman felt giving as well as receiving massage was beneficial. Other types of CAM - herbal remedies, supplements, homeopathy, relaxation techniques, self-help books, meditation, relaxation exercises and meditation - were sometimes described as helpful, and sometimes not. 

Those who found some of these CAMs helpful mainly benefited from its relaxing effects and found it helpful for sleeping; they also recognised it would not cure their mental health problems. [See Sara below] Some said CAMs helped symptoms without side effects - although some, e.g. St John's Wort, can have side effects too.

One woman with schizophrenia found homeopathic remedies and the herbs prepared by her aunt in the Caribbean “just as beneficial” as prescribed medication. Others, however, had not found homeopathy or herbal remedies helpful. Some warned that meditation and relaxation techniques were only helpful for preventing symptoms and not dealing with, for example, a panic attack or psychotic episode. One man said that meditation was helpful regardless of whether you were depressed or not, while others found it totally unhelpful (for more about meditation see 'The role of faith, religion & spirituality').

One woman had experienced some relief of her depression using herbal remedies and supplements but she had not experienced the “magical cure that it promised”.

Acupuncture, Chinese medicine, Qi Gong, hypnotherapy, were all described as ineffective. A few had tried many types of CAM and found them all ineffective. 

A few people continued to use CAMs even though they were not helping their mental health problems because of the benefits to their physical health. One man continued to have acupuncture for his back problems, and another continued to take Omega 3 for his heart. People also mentioned other limitations to being able to use CAMs - some can be difficult to do (for example, meditation, hypnotherapy, following a programme from a self-help book) and one man with generalised anxiety disorder was worried about being seen with a self-help book in case it gave away his problem to other people. 

Some people tried CAMs and no longer used them. They said they stopped because they were not helping, or because they did not have enough money, time or energy. Some people had never tried CAMs because they did not know what they were. Some people had tried them and found them unhelpful and others who hadn't, didn't beleive that they worked. One man thought CAMs were helpful but hadn't tried them himself. One man hadn't tried them for practical reasons - he said they were not around in the 1970s and he hadn't tried acupuncture because of his fear of needles. 

Other issues to consider when thinking about trying CAMs
Some people questioned whether CAMs could treat mental health problems. For some, this was connected to their belief that mental health problems are caused by a chemical imbalance in the body that can only be corrected using conventional medication produced using “scientific” methods. Some also believed that CAMs are only helpful for mild to moderate and not severe mental health problems such as psychosis.

Although one woman found herbal remedies helpful, she thought that CAMs weren't enough on their own. CAMs can be used alone, or with conventional medicine, and this woman recommended that people consult their doctor before trying CAMs in case they might cause problems with any prescribed medication they were taking. The same woman warned that CAMs may be a potential pitfall because people can feel desperate and prepared to try anything to get better. People had mixed responses from professionals when they mentioned alternative remedies. While some doctors prescribed or recommended alternative remedies, others were less enthusiastic. CAMs are not usually available on the NHS, and must be paid for privately.

Some people saw CAMs as “unscientific” or that there hadn't been enough research done to see how effective they were. One man said people made “exorbitant claims” based on stories they had heard. He had an idea for a research into how effective meditation is, in the treatment of depression.

CAMs may be used to treat mental health problems, but little research has been done so there is little evidence to support their use. Most is known about treatments for depression, anxiety and insomnia. A few people talked about an evidence base for the use of herbal remedies and supplements.

Many people had built up their knowledge about CAMs by reading books and attending courses. One woman thought it was a good idea to speak to someone who had tried CAMs. Choosing CAMs should be guided by their safety and effectiveness.

Last reviewed June 2015.

Last updated February 2013.

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