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Depression and recovery in Australia

Complementary and holistic approaches

Many people we spoke to took a holistic (all-inclusive) approach to their mental health problems, and had tried various complementary and alternative approaches. Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) and therapies are widely used in Australia, with around two in three people reporting in 2008 that they had used them, usually to supplement or sometimes in place of conventional health care. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) define CAM as:
  1. alternative medical systems (e.g. homeopathy, ayurvedic & Traditional Chinese Medicine, including acupuncture);
  2. mind-body interventions (e.g. mediation & yoga);
  3. biologically-based therapies (e.g. herbal medicine, naturopathy and vitamins and mineral supplements);
  4. manipulative & body-based methods (e.g. chiropractic, massage and oesteopathy); and
  5. energy therapies (e.g. biofield therapies such as reiki and bioenergetics therapies such as pulsed electromagnets).
Most of the people we talked to who used complementary and alternative approaches did so along with conventional approaches such as medication and / or talking therapy. Some had tried different therapies at different times, others had tried just one or two things, while others believed that a variety of therapies used in combination worked best. Belinda had had negative experience with antidepressants and wanted to stay away from ‘chemicals’ when her depression returned. Instead she took part in counselling as well as kinesiology, massage, yoga, acupuncture, naturopathy, meditation and hypnotherapy. Other people used different therapies, conventional or alternative, for different purposes.
 

Belinda embraced complementary and alternative approaches and benefited from most of those she...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 25
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I‘ve done stuff like gone to acupuncture, counselling obviously, kinesiology and Chinese herbs as well and apart from them all making me feel [like] virtuous, I’ve found that it has really helped me a lot. 
 
I think with so I started off with you know psychologist counselling and she I think had suggested to me at one stage that maybe might want try a Naturopath or something like that. 
 
And so I got actually I think it was a manager at work who gave me the name of a Chinese herbalist in town and I went off to see him, and it was you know I had to take some disgusting herbs and stuff, but at the same time I found his explanations really interesting. 
 
Being Chinese myself and my grandmother who, the one I remember as my first memory, was a Chinese doctor and so I always feel that I should do it because my grandmother did it and I loved her very much.
 
Then also a friend of mine at the time had told me he was seeing a kinesiologist and he found it very helpful. So I went to one kinesiologist and.... she was fantastic. What I really liked about kinesiology for me was that I could talk through what she would firstly identify as issues with my body and she, you know, I don’t know if you know much about kinesiology but yeah it’s pretty amazing, so it’s about like adjusting energies and stuff like that, which I feel really helps me, like I feel, I don’t know it just resonates with me for some reason. 
 
So yeah and she and also as part of the treatment I talked about what was going on for me in relation to certain things that she picked up, but they would seem quite random you know and then I’d just sort of say certain things and it just seemed to help me feel good. And I think it is probably the talking as well that helps. So yeah that is what led me to do all that. 
 
You know massage as well helped me because I, because of being anxious and depressed I became very tense and ended up just having some other associated sort of muscle tensions and stuff, so I went off to a massage therapist who is also fantastic. And yeah so that helped physically and because it helped physically it helped me sleep and you know helped me get through the day. And it was just really nice; non-judgmental, you know, I’d say stuff to her about what was going on in relation to my depression or you know feeling basically shit about myself and she would hear it and then you know just talk to me about it and it just helped when she was massaging me. And she, you know massage therapists don’t, the good ones don’t just massage. Yeah, so I guess that’s what I. 
 
 

Kymberly used both conventional and complementary approaches to deal with her depression. She saw different therapies as offering different benefits.

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 45
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I do yoga and meditation as well, which I find very beneficial and calming from the anxiety point of view.
 
Anyway, so sleeping - yes, my sleeping was affected, by my worrying and, I dealt with it that way and med, and meditation. And I was drinking chamomile tea for a while, but other than that, it didn't work really - not like prescriptive drugs. I can't, I can't deny it. Anything else?
 
Why do you like prescriptive drugs? How different they are? How do they make you feel?
 
They just stop the - I know that they work. And, and I've tried Val - I was going to say Valium - Valerian.
 
I take my Vitamin B because I think that that reduces, it's Vitamin Executive B Stress Formula.
 
Some people we spoke to talked about finding a single complementary approach particularly helpful. For example, Millaa, who had not had especially favourable experiences with talking therapy and who did not want to take antidepressants, told us that herbal teas helped relax him both mentally and physically – though he regretted their effects were not longer-lasting. Ralph believed that his symptoms flared up when he ate highly processed foods with additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG). He told us that as long as he kept to a strict natural diet he stayed well. Some people found hypnotherapy particularly useful for helping them relax, while another person liked the concentration required when practising yoga' ‘…you haven’t got time to think of everything else and that’s a good thing for me.’
 

Millaa talked about the benefits and drawbacks of herbal teas.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I find though that chamomile and peppermint teas work. One, the peppermint works because it helps with the - if you've got any physical symptoms it just sort of soothes everything. Chamomile helps because it keeps your mind kind of clear. But I only found that it worked - I can only really do that once a day. So, and then it, it’d last for maybe an hour and then it would all start again. But I can only – the effect would only last for about a day. Then I'd have to wait for the next day to have some tea again – for it to work anyway. I'd drink it but it wouldn't have any real impact like it did the first time. Yeah.

 

Ralph tried many conventional and alternative approaches to his depression, but in the end...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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I came home from the doctors thinking, ‘Well what can I do? I’ve, I don't want to take drugs; I don't think I need drugs’. Mind you, I felt extremely bad, I felt terrible. Occasional panic attacks and depression and various other little symptoms I had which I didn't relate to whatever, to what I had. I then decided that, ‘I suppose I've got to get my weight down and my blood pressure down’. So I decided to go on a diet. I selected a diet myself and basically it was no fats, no sugar, no salt, eat very plain food and, and minimal amounts, just to keep my, get my weight down and to get my blood pressure down’. And to cut a long story short, within two months, I was jumping out of my skin. 
 
The only way that - I tried all sorts of doctors, not psychiatrists, although I did see one without knowing it; naturopaths; what’s the other - acupuncturists; people who slap dead fish over you in the middle of the night, probably - not really, but you know that sort of thing; hypnotherapy. I haven't tried religion - that won't work anyway; oh, all those sorts of things. Ah, and different sorts of diets.
 
Until recently I read a publication – I say – during all this time, I've been up and down, all over the place and generally not as bad as I used to be, but certainly not good enough to push myself anywhere. Ah, then eventually I did some reading on the subject and a lot of people were talking about MSG. And I've just realised that when I was on these diets, I wasn’t, I was eating plain food. I wasn't eating anything out of a packet, anything out of a bottle and I - even going to a restaurant - I didn't go to restaurants, fast food places, anything like that. 
 
Ah, and that's what seemed to make me feel better. To this day, I now follow that diet, pretty much, but there's, there’s more to it than just MSG. There is other, probably other foods that I react to, not seriously, but enough that when I have MSG too, then I start - if you have it day after day, which I was doing, without knowing it, ah it was causing me to do all sorts of strange things
 
I know that when I stopped – I was, went on this diet, the, I mean the result wasn't immediate, it took about two months before I was 100 per cent. But mind you, after two weeks, I was feeling ah, on a scale of one to ten, I was probably feeling eight out of 10. But eight out of 10 wasn't good enough, I had to be 10. And I got there eventually. And it was quite ah miraculous, because I remember that day that ah, or that night, when I woke up in the morning, I said, ‘I've just slept through the whole night’. And I said – and it repeated day after – or night - not day after day - night after night after night. And at work I was performing brilliantly. 
 
 

Phil described his experience with hypnotherapy.

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 37
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What sorts of, strategies did this guy use to help you?
 
Hypnotherapy.
 
Oh, yeah.
 
Yeah, yeah, did some of that. You know to because, I was feeling really, you know, pretty bad a lot of the time.
 
Can you take me through what he did in that hypnotherapy process? 
 
Oh it just involves, you know, trying to clear your mind and - and, sort of you know he plays some nice music in the background and, you know, he's got this sort of Scottish, sort of, Billy Connolly type voice, you know, very, you know, sort of more a - in a DJ sort of type of a style.
And, he'd just go through and - and, you know, just reassure me that, you know, everything's going to be okay. And that, you know sort of these things do happen in life and - and, you know, sort of there's no - you know there is a possibility that, you know sort of that it'll work out for the best and, you know sort of, just generally made me feel, more easy with it.
 
Some people were undecided about complementary and alternative approaches to mental health care. Shaz talked about the lower cost of conventional medicine as compared with naturopathy. Sara said it was important to approach CAM with care, especially as depression often made people vulnerable and open to exploitation. Amelia, who felt strongly that her depression was linked to her hormones and who found medication helpful, highlighted the relative lack of evidence behind complementary approaches.
 

Shaz was open to complementary approaches but couldn’t afford to pay for them.

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I went through a phase where I was seeing a naturopath but the, the only reason I stopped that - I did find it helpful and she was very good, but it’s expensive. See and this is the thing with medicines you can get from your doctors and that, they’re a lot cheaper. But a lot of the medications that they actually supply do come from natural ingredients anyway, you know. So I think they do have - like naturopaths and people like that do have their place in society but um… I think a lot of it’s what your attitude too, like whether you think it will work.

 
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Sara believed in the importance of a holistic approach to depression care, but warned against...

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Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 43
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Did you ever try, did you try any of that?
 
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think the stuff’s really - well it depends. You know, there’s lots of stuff I think is really, potentially allows people to be quite exploited. You know I, I know of people who, who, who have gone to therapies that are neither structured or, or properly, check, there’s no checks and balances in it. They’re promised cure when there is no cure. I, I think, I think people, when they’re sick and they’re vulnerable are, are very at risk of being exposed, or very at risk of being taken advantage of. But having said that, I think there are a lot of, lot of a lot of alt - complimentary medicines that, that help. I think some of the nutritional stuff really helps well. I think that things like massage and bodywork really helps.
 
I think that should be part of that mainstream of treatment of depression and I think depression needs to be treated really holistically.
 
 
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Amelia found antidepressants helpful and was dismissive of complementary approaches and talking...

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Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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I always have this little imagination that maybe there is somebody who actually understands hormonal depression, and, and can really figure out something other than evening primrose oil and Echinacea and whatever it is - St John's bloody wort or something or other .
 
So you're obviously not very fond about natural alternatives and complementary?
 
Well, look, I really, really feel very happy for people who find that helpful; and maybe they just have a different experience to me. but yeah, somebody who actually, had a particular expertise or understanding of that particular kind of depression and how to handle it and manage it, and if there's something other than – be- yes, other than drug therapy. Not other than - as well as - because I've just got this, sort of feeling that - you know, like the. the kind of, therapy that that GP, more recently that I went to, was suggesting it's cognitive behavioural therapy. And I understand cognitive behavioural therapy, and it's to do with the attitude of mind. 
 
And I just always think that's, of course that's really important and, of course, I try to, control those things. But if you've got an enemy within, you know, you can't have your mind over matter to that extent. I can't do anything about my stupid hormones. So yes, I would really, really like - and because I'm an academic, you know, for me it's all about look have you done the research studies? Have you got a randomised controlled trial of this? Otherwise don’t waste my time.
 
A well-balanced lifestyle (see Self-care and coping strategies’) as a strategy for managing depression or anxiety was advocated by some people. They emphasised the importance of a healthy diet, exercise (‘just getting out for a walk’), adequate sleep, sunshine and social interaction (‘don’t isolate yourself’), as well as giving up potentially destructive habits such as drinking, smoking or illicit drugs.
 
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Gabrielle talked about the complementary approaches she used, and also mentioned the importance...

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Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 23
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If I can sleep I can get up, I can face the day. There's lots of things you can do to –the feeling of getting up when you're not medicated is something that only people who go through it know what it's like.
 
I think it's really unfortunate, ah - there was a stage, for a few years, where I relied on alcohol. it's not the answer. 
 
Ah, but I understand why people use it. And I can honestly say it's also worth coming the other side of it. 
 
So do you drink now?
 
Ah, I will at - probably two glasses a month.
 
Right. And was that sort of a conscious decision...
 
Yes.
 
I'd be dead.
 
Also what I chose to do - which I think has helped me a lot - is, use a multivitamin - vitamin C and fish oil - every day. And I also gave up smoking. I smoked about 30 a day. I don’t smoke anymore either. And I'm sure a combination of my medication, my vitamins and everything else - they all help. It's not, just one thing.
 

Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.
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