What are they?
Complementary and alternative therapies typically take a holistic approach to your physical and mental health. This means that they consider all aspects of your physical and emotional wellbeing as a whole, rather than treating particular symptoms separately. For example, some complementary therapies focus on the mind, body and spirit or on the flow of energy through your body.
Many of these approaches have roots in ancient Eastern philosophies of health, or the kinds of traditional healing methods used widely before the development of the treatment models currently used by the NHS. By contrast, NHS treatment models are are largely based on clinical evidence and academic research (sometimes called 'modern medicine' or 'conventional medicine').
What's the difference between a 'complementary' and an 'alternative' therapy?
There isn't a very clear distinction between what these terms mean, and some people may use either to broadly describe any kind of treatment that isn't available through the NHS. But in general:
- 'Complementary' describes therapies which may be used alongside treatments offered by your doctor (such as yoga, massage and meditation).
- 'Alternative' describes approaches which are generally meant to replace the treatments offered by your doctor (such as Traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, or some herbal remedies such as St John's wort).
(See our page on types of complementary and alternative therapies for more information about the different therapies available.)
Why might I try them?
There are many reasons you might decide to try complementary or alternative therapies. For example:
- You don't want the treatment your doctor has offered (such as psychiatric medication or talking therapies).
- You've already tried the treatments your doctor has offered and they haven't suited you (for example, you haven't found a psychiatric medication that works, or it's caused unwanted side effects).
- You're on an NHS waiting list for treatment, but you need help to manage your symptoms right away.
- You want more options to try in addition to the treatments your doctor has offered.
- You don't agree with your doctor's approach and you want to take another approach to looking after your mental health.
Whatever your situation, if you have any worries about your mental health it is always recommended to seek advice from your GP, and to talk through all your options through with someone you trust.
When I could no longer take SSRI antidepressants due to side effects, I tried St John’s wort as an alternative. It has definitely helped with my depression and my mood has lifted quite a lot.
Can they treat mental health problems?
Complementary and alternative therapies can be used as a treatment for both physical and mental health problems. The particular problems that they can help will depend on the specific therapy that you are interested in, but many can help to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Some people also find they can help with sleep problems, relaxation and feelings of stress.
I have used massage therapy to help relieve some of the muscle tension and pain that my anxiety creates. Just having someone respond to me and my body with compassion helps me treat myself more compassionately and with more respect.
Do they work?
As with all medicines and therapies, different things work for different people, and it's not easy to predict which therapy you would find most helpful.
Most of the evidence for complementary and alternative therapies is based on traditional use rather than modern scientific studies. This means it's really difficult to know whether they are an effective treatment for mental health problems. However, many people do say they find them helpful in managing or relieving the symptoms they experience.
For information about the evidence behind specific therapies, see our pages on types of complementary and alternative therapies and herbal remedies.
Can I get them through the NHS?
Doctors don't offer many complementary and alternative therapies as treatment for mental health problems through the NHS. This is because they aren't typically recommended as evidence-based treatment options by the the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the organisation that produces guidelines on best practice in healthcare.
To find out what the NHS is able to offer you locally, it's a good idea to make a GP appointment and ask your doctor directly.
Are they safe?
Most complementary and alternative therapies are considered to be safe when conducted by a trained and experienced practitioner.
However, there may be times when a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you, and would not be recommended. For example, if:
- you are pregnant or breastfeeding
- you are receiving any other treatments that could interfere with the therapy.
- you have a physical or mental health problem that could be made worse by the therapy.
Before you start any new treatment it is a good idea to talk through any safety concerns with your doctor and the treatment provider. This is especially important if you're already taking any kind of medication.
If you are considering taking a herbal remedy, see our information on when herbal remedies might be unsuitable for you. Remember that your local pharmacist can also give you advice about prescription and over-the-counter medications.
How are they regulated?
There's no compulsory regulation for complementary healthcare practitioners in England and Wales, so it is possible to practice totally independently without regulation.
However, there are several kinds of voluntary organisation with which practitioners can choose to register:
- Professional associations for particular types of therapies. These are membership organisations which provide a range of benefits and services for practitioners, and act in the interests of the profession. Most have their own codes of practice and registers of practitioners.
It's always a good idea to choose a therapist who is registered with a regulatory body or professional association. This means that they will have met the standards of practice and education required by that organisation.
For guidance on the regulation of herbal medicines, see our information on how herbal remedies are licensed.
What else should I consider before starting a therapy?
Only you can decide whether a type of treatment feels right for you. But it might help you to think about:
- What do I want to get out of it – is it realistic?
- What does it cost – can I afford it?
- How long will it take – have I got enough time? Is it open-ended or time-limited?
- Will I have to travel?
- Have I got any health problems that would affect me being able to do the therapy?
- Am I receiving any other treatments that would affect me being able to do the therapy?
- Could this therapy be adapted to meet my needs?
- Would someone I trust be able to come along with me if I didn't feel comfortable going on my own?
Finding the right therapist
As with any kind of therapy, it's really important to find someone you feel confident and safe with. Regardless of the kind of therapy or medicine they practice, if you don't like or trust that person you're less likely to have a positive experience.
As a good starting point, your practitioner should be able to give you straightforward answers to your questions about:
- what qualifications they have
- what professional bodies they're registered with
- their past experience of using the therapy for your specific problem
- what risks might be involved, and what you should do if you experience any negative effects
- what procedures they have in place for making a complaint
- any other concerns or questions you have about the therapy.
If you don't feel able to ask these questions of them beforehand it might help to write them down in an email, or ask someone you trust to come along to support you.
Where can I access them?
To find a registered therapist you can:
You may also find a recommendation for a local therapist through:
- alternative therapy centres
- health spas
- your local Mind branch
- your GP practice
- your local community centre.
What if they don't work for me?
Although some people find that complementary or alternative therapies can be helpful, not everyone does. If you've tried something and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself. Managing a mental health problem can be really difficult, especially when you're not feeling well. It can take time and may not be straightforward. But many people find that when they find the right combination of treatments, self-care and support, it is possible to feel better.
See our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for other options you could explore.
This information was published in April 2018 – to be revised in 2021. References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information see our page on permissions and licensing.