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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. 

 

Shaukat tried hypnotherapy and relaxation techniques because he was not sleeping and was worried...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 30
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I always, you know, not sleeping well and I couldn't really talk to about to, about the different things I worry about with anybody really.  So I thought, you know, I need to see, I need to get help before losing more jobs and stuff. So I went to see a, it was a stress management course. The tutor there, he was a qualified psychotherapist and hypnotherapist and he taught stuff like yoga and meditation as well. So he built this sort of ten week stress management course around, in those things that he was quite  he knew quite a bit about. And that helped me a bit as to understand and realise about sort of, I mean, you know, well learning about relaxation techniques I think were the main thing that helped.  And he taught us various techniques in, in the class and how it's all linked to thought processes and how, you know, how a relaxed mind helps and whatever. And I did I think manage to help me sleep in some ways with that. 

But also I was doing hypnotherapy with him the same tutor, he had this private hypnotherapy practice. And  I think I did about ten sessions of hypnotherapy which I found really, really difficult because I couldn't relax when I was with him. And I didn't know how I was suppose to feel or what I was supposed to be able, and I just thought, you know, I'm doing what I can. But it didn't really help at all. And after about ten sessions, you know, he told me himself that, you know, it's not really working for you so, you know, don't continue with it. Although I was still going to his, you know, stress management course which was really more helpful I think.  And so I learned sort of techniques of reducing, you know, my worries or learning to relax more at night.

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. 

 

Nelsy has trained to give massage and says giving and receiving massage is relaxing and helped...

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Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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So when I went to the counselling session with the, [name] he, through questions, he took me down, back in time to my childhood and I was crying like a two year old, angry and sad. And' there was a point when he came to me [horn beeps] and put his hand on my shoulder and suddenly it was like a, as the course is called a 'turning point' in me. I began to cry in a different way. This angry little toddler changed suddenly into a needy toddler because that little touch made me understand about my need of physical affection. My mum or my dad never would have, never showed any affection and to me it's just a human need. So my husband suggested for me afterwards to go for massage, body massage and that helped me so wonderful that I did the course and I give body massage. It is not just good for the person who's receiving the massage but also for me a time of relaxation, a time of  togetherness, a time of confidentiality, so all this apparently insignificant things are what really help to, helping me with my mental health.

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 and interact with perscribed medication.

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 for people with mental health problems ').

 
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Patricia says breathing exercises can help to prevent anxiety, but they are not helpful when she...

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 23
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Breathing exercise, that I been to several sessions about coping with stress blah, blah, blah.  It never really worked but there you go. The breathing exercise you know that one where you put your hand and, and, you know, just below your, your lungs and try to breathe with your stomach rather than your lungs because apparently that reduces the' your heart beatings and that helps.  Especially with me. It does help.  But when you're in the middle of a panic attack, it doesn't help [Laughs].  It's before, it's all I think it's all about and when I think it really works is preventing the anxiety state even though it's there but just try to, to control and it.  And if you control the anxiety levels you will control the panic attack. I think that's very important.

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”.

 

Sara has found different supplements and herbal remedies helpful for relaxation, sleeping and...

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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I've tried various supplements, vitamins and amino acids and I've tried homeopathy as well. I haven't sort of had a huge amount of success with that.  And then I've done various self-help books, you know, and some of them have been more helpful then others.  With supplements, I think they have helped me to an extent.  You know, there's one I take at night time that does help me sleep and it's supposed to raise your serotonin levels.  I don't think they have like made me really, really happy or anything. But I do I think they have helped to an extent, that I'm not as bad as I was. I don't get, you know, I used to be, in my really, really depressed days I would just be like, you know, really, really tearful over really minor things, like now I get that when I am pre-menstrual. But, you know, the rest of the time I don't sort of feel like I want to cry all the time and stuff. It's only really just before my periods. I think they helped to that extent that, you know, I'm not as sensitive to things as I used to be.  And, you know, I'm not as low…

But I don't, I mean I read a book about, you know, how you can take supplements to help your mood and stuff and I haven't experienced the kind of, sort of magical cure that it promised, and I still have difficulties.  

Do you know the names, can you remember the names of the supplements that you take?

I take 5HTP and DLPA and tyrosine and I take omega 3 as well. Well that's kind of general health as well and I take St John's Wort. I've only been taking the St John's Wort since I hurt my back though because I got very, very depressed then.  Yes and just like multivitamin and stuff. But as far as I'm aware from what I read the DLPA is meant to like help you deal with life's ups and downs, the tyrosine is meant to be an energizer and the 5HTP is meant to help your serotonin levels. So, yes.

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

 

Tariq tried various different CAMs but found them all unhelpful and doubts how they can work for...

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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And what kind of things do you do now to help manage your symptoms?

I don't do anything, [laughs] I don't do anything because I, I've tried everything and I find everything ineffective  in terms of , you know, all this, the therapy, it's all rubbish.  they tell you that you should go stress workshop, I've been to stress workshop it's rubbish, they don't know nothing there. The people that run them are, are stupid as well because, honestly they don't know nothing and they're like you go along to these workshops and they'll be like, 'Breathe in, breathe out,' and then you're like, 'Is this a joke, is this, is this like a theatre play or something?' because these people don't know what they're doing and it's, it's like, you know, what are you doing, it's embarrassing. And you don't want to be there. And I've been to, you know, I've been to a lot of sort of stuff that has been run by the Mental Health Trust in my area, a lot of workshops and a lot of stuff for service users, everything I've been to has been a load of rubbish and it's all been ineffective. Some of the things that they tell me as in the crisis team told me  breathe in and out, meditation, all these million and one things, none, nothing helps. Meditation doesn't help, meditation only helps people that, I don't think it helps anyone, I just think that people say it helps them but it doesn't  because especially like in this, in this sort of developed modernised world where people are constantly in and out and people are constantly working and the world is going at such a fast pace there is no time for meditation, people that meditate are either lying or they are so, they are feeling this, you know, I don't know this sort of karma, whatever you call it, I don't, honestly I just think it's just all, I don't think any of it is true because I've actually tried it, I've actually tried to sit there for three hours but I can't even sit there for thirty seconds I just think right this is a joke [laughs]. I find every technique very ineffective so yeah.

Is there anything else that you've tried?

I've tried every.

Can you tell me more?

I've tried a million and one, I've used technique books that I've got from the library, I've used  videos that, fitness videos, I've used advice from the crisis team, advice from the psychotherapy units, the  psychology units at my hospital,  my psychiatrist, my mental health nurse, I've, so many people have told me do this, do that, do this, nothing has worked, honestly nothing has worked.  nothing as been as effective, nothing has even had a little real impact on me  so I've, and they were still bringing up, you know, for example if I told the crisis team, 'Look load of rubbish what you're teaching me,' they'd come back a week later and they'll say, with printouts, they'll say 'Do this exercise, it will be great, you'll be running about.' And it doesn't work and I've just given up on all that fitness stuff because I just, none of it is effective, none of it helps and I've had no sort of positive outcome from anything that I've undertaken from the advice I've had from mental health professionals.

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. 

 

Marlene found a self-help book helpful for relaxation at bedtime but her daughter had to read it...

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 24
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Even my daughter, she's 13, 14, she's going to be 14 this month. She says, she goes, “Mum, when I grow up, I want to be like anxiety person, to help other people.” That's what she says. She goes, “I want to help other people, mum. To be like anxiety people, to talk about, yes, I want to be like something like that.” She goes, “Then I can look after you.” Because I can't read, you see, and night-time I used to have books, anxieties, and they read it for me. Night-time, and then they relax me. Because they say that it's like water in glass. You going to empty it, the water's going to get spilled. You don't want to empty it, you going to worry about it. I'm going to empty, I'm not going to empty. And you're not going to empty, you don't be, have to be worry about it. Because you, you don't want to be empty that glass. And it's like that, it's like you worry about this thought, but you're not going to do it. Why you worrying for? It's like book like that. And I read it, my daughters reads for me. And then I think, “Yes, I think there's water there. I'm not going to empty, I'm not going to empty it. I don't want to empty it. Why I'm worrying for it?” And then it gets you better.

So that, those books have helped?

Yes, they've really helped, books.

And has it been a problem, not being able to read English?

Yes, it's really a problem. I can't read any, any language, because I've never been to school.

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 believe 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.

 

Lorenz says CAMs, except perhaps for acupuncture, do not change the chemicals in body and...

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Age at interview: 50
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 20
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The alternative type remedies which I've never used because I was at the extreme end of the, at the hard core what I call it of the psychosis end which is going to need something more than just what we call bush tea [Laughs]. That's an old West Indian thing or herbal cure or maybe, you see the middle stage I feel the alternative medicine can work but when you get past that middle stage and you're on the hardcore side of it I think you need something what can  change the chemical reaction in your mind. Although acupuncture and things can change your chemistry in your own body, to a degree, may you self healing, you need some extra ingredient if that's the word to help that own body healing process to happen. And that only take place when you're at the hardcore of the mental illness and you need medicine really rather than just the alternative, I almost certainly think alternative medication would maybe work in the middle section of the, but after that they'd useless.

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.

 

Mae says herbal remedies have helped her, but urges people to be careful and to speak to their...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 45
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Yeah I've got a book on, on what do you call it? On herbs and I do yes I, you know, I eat natural organic foods and I'm very health conscious now about what I eat. I kind of never was interested, I mean I've been anorexic and bulimic and, you, you, you know, you go through the whole spectrum when you're, you've gone through the illnesses and especially when you've been boozing. And now I haven't got any sense of smell left or any sense of taste at all, I have to use a spray from the doctor to clear my nose in the mornings so it's kind of difficult [Laughs]. I mean I really want to enjoy the food but I can't taste it [laughs]. But I do I eat healthily and I go to the health food shop and get different herbs sometimes as a substitute, you know. I mean I used to take sleeping tablets, come off of the sleeping tablets and I started using the herbal remedy. I don't need to use anything now but that's, that was an alternative. 

And I spoke to, obviously you have to speak to your doctor because of your, your medication, you have to be careful also whether you're going to be using herbs or any alternative medicine you've got to talk to your doctor because it could go against your medication and you could make yourself ill so you have to be really careful. But I was okay with, with  the thing, you know, I just take like a cod liver oil tablet a day, that helps your bones and blah, blah, blah. Yeah alternative medicine is good but I wouldn't kind of depend on it as a complete medication, you know. Unless I was really sure, you know, of what I was doing because I think you, that's another pitfall you could fall into as well [pause] because we're all looking, we're all looking for answers and sometimes we're so desperate, you know, to just get a little bit of normality into our lives that we'll do anything to experience it. But sometimes you've just got to take it slowly and take advice from others if you can especially others that have been in the system and, you know, been there, done it, bought the tee-shirt, you know, and all the rest of it yeah.

 
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She says different professionals had different responses to her using herbal remedies and that...

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Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 25
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No, but the black professionals have talked about my diet. Yeah. They haven't really, I mean they haven't really offered any alternative, although some of them I, I, yeah they've talked about my diet, they have talked about my diet and said, you know, things that can help apart from… you know, the medication. And not just that but they've been open to, so, when I talk about herbal remedies they've been more open to me sort of like trying it out and, and, and, you know, and, and, and the benefits of herbs, you know. Whereas the white, the white professionals have been very sceptical about herbs and the benefits that they could possibly have and, “Oh just take your medication [Niabingi], you know, you'll be alright, you don't want this and you don't want that.”  They haven't been adventurous, you know, with, with how I see my healing, you know, to, in what form my healing could take.

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.

 

Anton tried various CAMs because he was desperate. He said they were only "lightening my wallet"...

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Age at interview: 64
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 45
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Yes. As I was desperate, I had to hold on to my job. Money was no object, what is the point, good health is wealth. So I decided to go on the alternative therapy route. I tried acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal, you name it, Chinese medicine, Qi Gong, and you name it. My being an accountant, I suddenly got a bit wise, because what I found was these people were lightening my wallet. You know, they were making exorbitant claims but nothing was happening. I didn't even notice any difference, after the few sessions. So then I used to go along to one of these guys and say, say if I decide to go to a herbalist or something. 'Look I've got this illness, now how many sessions, what's your fee?  And after so many,' said, 'Would I get well?' Then, then of course  then they were a bit cautious, right, so when I spoke such to them, then they would caution and then one an acupuncturist guy, he said, 'Oh three months you have got to go one of my' fifty quid a time.'  Then I said, 'In three months time it leaves.' And so I found a lot of these alternative people make exorbitant claims, they lighten your wallet, and that's it. I have no faith in them.

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 September 2018.

Last updated September 2018.

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