Well, first of all, the answer to that question depends on what you mean by “holistic.” If you mean treatment that considers the mind, body, and soul, I certainly have to say yes. All three are inextricably intertwined and healing one tends to heal the others as well.
Certainly, the mind is involved – that’s implicit in the word “mental.” To many, this means the brain as the location of the mind. Increasingly, this also means thinking of and referring to mental illnesses as brain illnesses. And the competing theories of what causes depression and bipolar disorder, for example, have had something to do with the brain. Perhaps neurotransmitters in the brain are not behaving the way they are supposed to, or processing traumatic events causes brain illnesses (certainly true in PTSD), or genetics is responsible. whichever it is, the brain is involved.
It’s not controversial to say that the body and the mind are linked in the most profound ways. What affects one affects the other. Mental illness has demonstrable effects on the body, all the way from not being able to care for oneself physically to having a shortened life span. Treatment programs for mental illness often include an exercise component, which causes physical changes in the body and brain. Depression in particular is known to be alleviated by even small amounts of exercise. The exercise partially relieves the depression, which makes it more likely that the depressed person will be able to exercise. It’s a cycle that benefits both the body and the mind.
As far as the soul goes, I don’t feel theologically competent to make any definitive statements. I do know, however, that many people find that spiritual practices such as prayer help them cope with the effects of brain illnesses. It may be subjective, but what works, works. I personally don’t believe that prayer cures mental illness, but even if it just makes the sufferer feel more at peace and more comforted, that’s a component of healing that’s important.
Holistic healing that recognizes the interconnectedness of these three aspects of the person is, in my opinion, more likely to be more effective than any one of them alone.
Then there’s the other thing people often mean when they say “holistic healing.” To many, holistic healing means avenues of treatment beyond the scope of Western medicine. Herbal medicine, meditation, homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga, and crystal healing are among the avenues that have been explored.
There is certainly some validity to herbal medicine. It’s been practiced for thousands of years and the results are well-known, particularly by indigenous peoples who have passed that knowledge on throughout the years. Chamomile, lavender, passionflower, and saffron have been studied for mitigating anxiety or depression in cancer patients, with favorable risk-benefit profiles compared to standard treatments. Ginseng is another popular herb for relieving mental conditions. St. John’s wort has been used as a treatment for depression for hundreds of years, and so has valerian for anxiety. And there are many vitamins and supplements such as B vitamins and zinc that might have beneficial psychological effects.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous scientific study of plant-based medicine. For people who gather herbs and plants from the wild, there’s no telling the potency or amount of the active substance that may be present. Even in herbal products sold at health food stores, there is little standardization, so you don’t always know what you may be getting in terms of dosage.
Meditation and yoga are popular adjuncts to talk therapy and/or medication for psychological problems. In fact, these days, they seem to be promoted as a panacea for mental health. They’re particularly popular recommendations in corporate settings, where they’re seen as a low-cost alternative to more expensive treatments that would affect the company’s health insurance costs.
Nonetheless, meditation and yoga do have beneficial effects on mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and may be helpful for conditions such as PTSD as well. Any amount of exercise is commonly recommended for people with depression and bipolar disorder. The effects are cyclical. The more one exercises, the more one feels able to get going with exercise. Yoga, being low-impact, is something that can be tried by nearly everyone. I’d still say they are adjuncts to traditional treatments for mental illnesses rather than a first-line approach.
Then there are practitioners of alternative medicine. These therapies range from acupuncture to chi balancing to aromatherapy to biofeedback to reflexology to reiki. Let’s start with one that has some science to back it up.
Acupuncture and its cousin acupressure have solid adherents behind them. Johns Hopkins Medicine says that acupuncture is useful in treating anxiety, depression, insomnia, nervousness, and neurosis, though more studies need to be done. And who am I to argue with Johns Hopkins? If they say it’s effective or even promising, I’m willing to say it falls inside the spectrum of helpful approaches.
Reflexology, not so much. The idea that there are areas on the feet that correspond to body parts and can be helped by foot massage is not scientifically proven for health in any body parts, either anatomically or physiologically. (It hasn’t been disproven either, but you can’t prove a negative.) It’s based on the idea that “energy lines” throughout the body somehow combine in the feet (or hands) to produce a map of the body. It is recommended for anxiety and stress relief.
On the other hand, the massage practice of concentrating on muscles that are tensed is much more well-documented. The Mayo Clinic has said that it can reduce stress and anxiety, and even mentions it as a treatment for depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The thing is, any practice that reduces stress is good for relieving anxiety. Whether or not massage has any effect on serious mental illness (SMI) is doubtful.
Relief from tension is, of course, possible when a person believes that a particular technique can reduce it. So if you believe in aromatherapy, for example, it may help you relax. It’s the placebo effect. I’d rather stick with massage.
Then there are approaches that simply don’t work. Homeopathy is supposed to work on the theory that if a substance is good for the body, introducing a single drop of it into water will be effective in the treatment of a disorder. Never mind the science (though there are rigorous studies that say homeopathy simply doesn’t work), the math doesn’t support this. Diluting a substance to the extent that there are minuscule, millionth amounts per glass of water – or even less – just isn’t sufficient to do anything. If there are larger concentrations of the substance, in which there can be alcohol or heavy metals like iron and lead, there may be drug interactions or serious side effects. In 2017, the FDA alerted consumers that some homeopathic teething tablets contained excessive amounts of the toxic substance belladonna. Belladonna is also said to be a treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Crystals are another way that alternative practitioners attempt to cure assorted diseases and conditions. Jasper and tiger’s eye are recommended for anxiety and lepidolite or citrine for depression. Smoky quartz is even said to relieve suicidal thoughts. I wouldn’t count on it. Again “energy fields” of the body and “vibrations” of the various stones, minerals, and crystals are supposed to combine to affect mental and physical health. I own and wear any number of crystals for their beauty, but have never felt any healing effects. The only benefit I see is if a stone is carried in the pocket as a “worry stone,” which the person can rub to induce a calming effect, an early version of the “fidget spinner,” as far as I can see.
Still, proponents of these alternatives to traditional Western medicine will continue to hope for beneficial effects. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that Americans spend over $30 billion annually on alternative health care. I say, “Let the buyer beware.”