No 'magic bullet': try this amulet

Conference debates role of alternative therapies in mental health services. Matthew Reisz reports

November 18, 2010

Issues about the status of alternative forms of therapy within the academy have been raised by a conference on traditional healers and mental health services.

The event in London last week was organised by the Ethnic Health Initiative, and five of the seven speakers were academics. Yet the topics under discussion included treatments that many regard as having unproven efficacy at best.

Publicity material for the conference states that traditional healers rely on "a number of interventions to heal people, including: recitation of specific prayers; fasting; the wearing of amulets; the chanting of specific music; meditation; the making of sacrifices; conducting exorcism ceremonies; and the ingestion of medicines and potions".

It invites "community faith leaders and healers" to attend alongside "professionals in the field of mental health and social care, including those from local authorities and NHS trusts".

Times Higher Education's request for a press pass to the event was turned down, but one of the speakers, William West, reader in counselling studies at the University of Manchester, said the conference had not focused on criticising Western medicine.

"I have twice had my life saved in hospital," he said. "If you are living in England and have a physical health problem, you would be pretty daft not to go to Western medicine - as many complementary practitioners would agree."

But while antibiotics are undoubtedly more effective than amulets in dealing with infections, Dr West suggested that there was no similar magic bullet for depression, and that "mental health raises rather different issues. You have to see mental health in a cultural context."

Dr West added that the conference was designed to address "the reality that 70 to 80 per cent of Britons have consulted traditional, complementary or spiritual healers, so the question is how those in the statutory healthcare services should get involved".

"We also need to look at protecting vulnerable people, so that they are not exploited by either healers or Western medics," he added.

Yet David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, raised a number of objections "to taking traditional healing seriously for mental (or any other sort of) illness".

In the absence of "proper randomised trials for social interventions...advice is based on guesswork", he claimed.

"There is no reason to think that most of it works and, more seriously, it is easy to imagine that some of it might do harm," he said.

Professor Colquhoun added: "To convey superstitious and nonsensical beliefs to a patient because it is 'for their own good' would be a movement in exactly the wrong direction."

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