Alternative, Complimentary, therapeutic what if "therapy itself" is NOT fit for purpose?
Updated: Jul 25
I watched a programme recently about how Singapore is supporting those struggling financially. The report started off by questioning whether one should "look a gift horse in the mouth" by rejecting or discarding the donations from food banks and the visuals showed households reliant on support, but overflowing with unopened cans...and then representatives of the charity spoke. They explained that what can sometimes happen when we donate is that we give the things we don't want or need, rather than thinking - what do I love and use - that others may also love and use. Add to that the health and mobility restrictions for seniors - for example, a can without a ring-pull would not always be able to be opened by someone with limited dexterity, and canned fruits in syrups would be far more damaging to a diabetic than a short term fast. While people wanted to help and contribute - what was being offered was simply not fit for purpose.
What resulted was a collaboration between the government, charities and organisations to now offer:
- vending machines with healthy options, placed in the areas of need, accessible with a food card
- Innovative packaging for nutritionally designed foods which could be eaten with or without heating, AND could be stored without a fridge
- Changes in the law so that companies could feel more able to donate potential wasted food
...the system simply learned - through working with those who needed it - to work better.
This made me reflect on psychological therapy.
The term "therapy" is defined specifically as "administered via a medical professional". I myself would NOT be qualified as my doctorate is a PhD not a medical qualification. I would also separate medical therapy such as "chemotherapy" from psychological therapy eg: CBT, Gestalt therapy, psychodynamic therapy and so on.
Now, I have been brought up with a Westernised view of healing practice - which largely involved medical intervention (including over the counter tablets) to alleviate symptoms as well as treat the disorder; and psychological intervention through talking therapy. But the more I have interviewed service users as well as wellbeing practitioners, I am beginning to question the rationale I have long ascribed to, asking whether there is another way.
At no point am I suggesting an "alternative" to medical intervention...at least not yet, but I am certainly questioning whether talking therapy as the psychological approach on offer is the only way to go...or even the most appropriate way for most.
Talking doesn't always work!
Many service users I have spoken to either explain that they struggle to access the overwhelmed services in the first place, but secondly, when they have been seen, they are not yet in a position to "talk" - much less answer the seemingly standard questions that the psychotherapists they have seen ask.
Therapists themselves have observed that some cultures are also not even accessing therapy - not because, as many reports may state "they don't want to access services" or as a nod to cultural differences because "mental health service is not in alignment with the cultural beliefs"...but rather because those services are not effective to their needs. What I mean by this is that sitting in a room one-on-one and being expected to talk about feelings that you may not yet understand yourself can feel like quite an alien concept; and then if the therapist themself does not fully understand your cultural standpoint, this can add to a sense of threat or conflict.
Juan Du is currently pioneering a blend of Western therapy with Chinese Calligraphy through Chinese Calligraphy Enhanced Therapy - through this approach which blends the mindful practice of calligraphy with a familiarity of construct to express in addition to the therapist writing in the same language - it may be possible to offer the East and South East Asian culture a bridge to the support available.
Dennis Relojo-Howell founder of award-winning psychology blog Psychreg, is exploring how blogging may be an accessible form of intervention and expression, especially for millennials or those who prefer to write or even "vlog" before sitting in a counselling suite.
Then there are many other approaches to finding head-space and being able to seek direction, for example, the highly respected Wellness Foundry for tarot, energy, spiritual and intuitive work; interventions such as EMDR, Reiki,
Mindfulness and of course religious support. Not only that but there is now an approach to depression addressing it as an ambulatory or movement-related disorder which is best treated and managed through mobility and exercise...and certainly the effects of nature, exercise, and even laughter on the brain's neurochemistry both priming our minds to think positively AND even reduce the production of stress hormone cortisol are widely noted.
Even coaching and training - and my "self help" through practical exercises, approach would not fall within the conventional psychological therapy sphere.
Then you have the slightly more blendable Art/Dance/Drama Therapy - with practitioners recognised by the HCPC, or the interventions which may be firmly classed as "therapeutic" rather than therapy itself such as Fitness classes and Yoga...but is it too simplistic to say...if it works for you to create headspace, to feel that you are in control, to know you can and are making a positive and meaningful contribution to life and are enjoying it along the way (as the WHO would like us to do) - why worry!?
"Alternative" v "Complimentary"
Now I have always chosen to call what I do a "compliment" to medical advice and intervention...and to some extent to GP prescribed psychotherapy as well, rather than an "alternative"...and while I would say I still believe that to be the case for medical intervention, I am no longer so sure for psychological.
While I DO appreciate that when it comes to healing from trauma and treating mental ill health having an understanding of the causes and a removal of some old "rules" or beliefs we might have plays a huge part in reducing trauma's emotional impact, for some, I simply do not believe talking therapy is the most appropriate "cure" nor relief. For some, I think you don't necessarily need to "talk" or "uncover" anything,
you might simply need to learn some healthy coping mechanisms, or unload some concerns to a listening ear...in Thailand the government found that 40 minutes of conversation could change suicidal ideation into a re-empowered confidence that there are other options. That listener isn't a medical professional.
I am not writing this to discredit anyone, nor to promote any one intervention over another...but in many ways, as cliched as it sounds, there is part of me that asks - isn't there room for ALL of us?
Of course I completely understand that there needs to be some sort of regulation, it is most certainly NOT about preying on the vulnerable - but those at the top of their field when it comes to wellness, I trust, have only healthy intentions and are using their skills to help you.
The irony of unregulated professions
In speaking to Fiongal Greenlaw of The Wellness Foundry, he explained that anyone working within spiritual practice still has to class themselves "entertainment" - and it is because of THIS that his work cannot yet be regulated. This is surely doing this area of wellness practice a huge disservice - which also then penalises those hoping to use the service because you simply do not know who you are working with.
And while one might say certain practices are "...classed entertainment for a reason" - I would question if that's somewhat reductionist? Yes one can argue that psychology is based in some level of empiricism - but even then results can be affected by many confounding variables, and a reliance on qualitative data and interpretation. Further, much of Eastern philosophy for example, is based in a spiritual approach embedded within the culture, as is of course religion, AND with recent statistics showing that more than 50% of 13-25 years olds are turning to tarot to seek answers, and 18-25 years olds are returning to the church in a time of uncertainty (Springtide Research Institute, 2021)...if we're trying things out for support - or because talking therapy isn't for us, or is unavailable AND we do not want to take a prescription, surely it doesn't hurt to be directing people to those in the field with a good reputation and integrity to match their practitioner skills.
And...How much of a science is psychology anyway?!
Now something that not many realise, nor even fully discuss about psychology is its roots – or at least the philosophical approaches of some of the first pioneers. So desperate is psychology to have itself recognised as a science, there is often a huge emphasis on what is provable, that even talking therapy, and taking a qualitative, or case study approach to research has perhaps spent so long trying to defend itself, it maybe dares not embrace other options.
But many of the first scientists Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo began not only as astrologers who cast horoscopes not for work, but because they believed in them; and founders of psychology for example William James were themselves interested in spirituality and psychic phenomena, with many of their critics – when you explore the historical context – being upset not by a "lack of scientific methodology" but differing religious beliefs!
As long as you are mindful of the importance of the (even self) regulation of the professions you are exploring and that in ANY field including medicine there are people who do not practice ethically nor with enough knowledge, I am very much of the mind that as long as you are aware, it doesn’t hurt you or put you into debt, if something resonates with you to make the changes you want, you need to do what works for you.
Do your research, but do what is right for you
We have a tendency to not only have a passion for the field within which we work, but can often be protective over it - to the point of critiquing others, but maybe that limits our options. A sense of wellbeing must be accessible to all, and what works for one, may not work for others. Accessibility is about being open. Thinking critically, being aware of what to expect and what red flags to watch out for is always sensible, but to say that only one approach, although perhaps most widely practised in your area is the only way may be doing many service users a huge disservice.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt