Charles Frederick Menninger, M.D., the founder of the famous mental health facility called the Menninger Clinic, was actually a homeopathic physician. He joined the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1894 and shortly thereafter became the head of his local medical society. Dr. Menninger was such an advocate of homeopathy he once said, "Homeopathy is wholly capable of satisfying the therapeutic demands of this age better than any other system or school of medicine." (1)
Hahnemann's name is not referred to in texts on the history of psychology nor is his name recognized in psychology today. And yet, even before Hahnemann developed the homeopathic science, he made important contributions to mental health care. In the late 1700s insanity was considered the possession of demons. The insane were regarded as wild animals, and treatment was primarily punishment. Hahnemann was one of the few physicians who perceived mental illness as a disease that required humane treatment. He opposed the practice of chaining mental patients, granted respect to them, and recommended simple rest and relaxation. Although this type of care may seem obviously important, it was revolutionary at its time.
Historians and psychiatrists today recognize that in the past the treatment of the insane was often barbaric. These experts are not just recalling the past of the 1700s or 1800s;mental health care of just several decades ago was filled with abuses. The mentally ill were injected with malaria in hopes that the fever would burn out their insanity. Insulin was given to schizophrenics, even though it seemed to diminish symptoms only when given in very high, sometimes lethal, doses. In the 1950s between 40-50,000 pre-frontal lobotomies were performed (in this operation the frontal lobe of the brain is incised, usually leaving the patient in a zombie-like state). (2) Neuroleptic durgs, such as Thorazine (chlorprozine), Haldol (haloperidol), and Prolexine (flufenazine) were and are frequently given to psychotic patients. These drugs may cause severe acute muscular spasms, bizarre posturing, and eventually to Parkinsonian syndrome.
These various treatments are either outdated or have been moderated, and yet, it remains questionable if modern psychiatric care is optimum.
Modern Psychiatric Care
Although treatment for the mentally ill has progressedin the past fews decades, it is still hard not to think that perhaps some of the psychiatric care offered today will be considered barbaric in the distant or even near future.
Mental illness is certainly one of the major health problems today. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated in 1984 that one in every five Americans has a mental disorder. (3) This same study revealed that during a six-month period 8.3% of Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder (including phobias), 6.4% had a substance abuse problem (abusing alcohol or drugs), and 6% had an affective disorder (disorders of mood).
For a long time psychiatrists and psychologists had great difficulty in defining what constituted mental illness and what differentiated one type of illness from another. In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Third Edition (DSM-III). This text has become the official guide to defining mental disease categories. Although DSM-III presents the most exacting information presently available on mental illness, Dr. Jerrold Maxmen, a Columbia University psychiatrist, has noted that "DSM-III shows how little psychiatrists actually know about mental disorders.... Because solid data doesn't exist for so many of these topics (diseases), DSM-III spotlights the enormous gaps in factual information about mental disorders." (4)
Despite the advances in the ability of psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose mental illness, it is not always clear that such diagnoses give us greater understanding of psychological disorders nor does it necessarily teach us how to cure them. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant reminded us of the limitations of diagnosis when he said, "Physicians think they are doing something for you by labeling what you have as a disease."
During the past century mental health professionals have debated the nature of mental illness. They have asked: to what degree is mental illness biological or organic and to what degree is it psychosocial? Until recently, most psychiatrists took one side or another on this issue. There is consensus among psychiatrists today that, generally speaking, biological factors primarily determine the type of symptoms of disorder that a person experiences (e.g. delusions, insomnia), while psychosocial factors are primarily responsible for the content and meaning of these symptoms. (5)
Psychiatrists tend to utilize medications to deal with the biological aspects of psychological problems and psychological therapies to treat the psychosocial condition. Their determination of what drug to use is based on their understanding of brain function. Nerve cells transmit messages by sending electrical impulses and chemicals called neurotransmitters to one other. This action triggers other nerve cells to fire messages or to inhibit this firing, depending on the frequency and intensity of the message transmitted and the sensitivity of the nerve cell's receptors.
Psychiatric medications are chosen to influence these mechanisms. People with schizophrenia are found to have nerve cell receptors that are hypersensitive to certain neurotransmittors and thus these cells fire too easily. Chlorpromazine (Thorazine), trifluoperazine (Stelazine), and haloperidol (Haldol) are some of the antipsychotic medications which are given to schizophrenics to help reduce this hypersensitivity and to calm them. Psychiatrists believe that severe depression results from a decrease in receptivity to certain neurotransmitters; thus medications are prescribed to increase this receptivity. Tricyclic antidepressant medications, most commonly amitriptyline (Elavil) and imipramine (Tofranil) are thought to have this stimulating action. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors are also given for depression, in part because they prevent the breakdown of some neurotransmitters, and in part because they seem to relieve symptoms of depressive patients. Amphetamines are still given to depressive patients, especially the elderly; however, it has since been discovered that cells tend to develop a tolerance and an addiction to such drugs, requiring even stronger doses of it to have an effect.
Despite the simplicity of these explanations for why psychiatric medications are prescribed, nature is not always as unidimensional as our explanations of it. Neurotransmittors not only affect nerve function but also directly influence hormones. By intervening in the delicate balance of brain chemistry, drugs cause significant physiological disruption. For example, one might assume that the body would be physiologically underactive during severe depression. In actual fact, the adrenal glands become hyperactive, producing excessive amounts of cortisol, the body's principal "stress" hormone. Various neurological, cardiovascular, digestive, hematologic (blood), and allergic symptoms are side effects of most antidepressive drugs.
The MAO inhibitors cause such disruption of the body that many common food and drinks (aged cheese, yoghurt, beer, chocolate, raisins, coffee, yeast products and others) have to be avoided since their ingestion can cause high blood pressure and, in a small number of cases, death. (6)
There are 10 trillion nerve cells in the brain that govern sensing, thinking, and feeling. (7) Despite the varying functions of different groups of nerve cells, their interdependent and synergistic nature creates a highly complex working whole which is literally impossible to comprehend fully. Predictably, psychiatrists have had limited success trying to alter certain improperly functioning parts without directly disturbing brain chemistry and physiological processes.
Author Lyall Watson noted, "If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't understand it." And acknowledging the complexity of the brain and of human behavior, Albert Einstein once said, "How difficult it is! How much more difficult psychology is than physics."
Despite the fact that psychiatric drugs often have serious side effects, especially when given over long periods of time, and the additional fact that they do not actually cure mental illness, these drugs still serve an important function. Since approximately 15% of people with severe depression commit suicide (9), methods to alleviate depression and thereby reduce the chances of suicide are certainly needed. If, however, there are alternatives to them, it is certainly prudent to consider them. Dr. Charles Frederick Menninger reminds us, "It is imperative that we exhaust the homeopathic healing art before resorting to any other mode of treatment, if we wish to accomplish the greatest success possible." (9)
Homeopathic Understanding of Mental Illness
The homeopathic understanding of health is intimately connected to its understanding of the mind in general. Homeopaths don't separate the mind and body in the usual way; they generally assume that body and mind are dynamically interconnected and that both directly influence each other. This acknowledgement of the interconnectness of body and mind is not simply a vague, impractical concept. Homeopaths base virtually every homeopathic prescription on the physical and psychological symptoms of the sick person. Psychological symptoms often play a primary role in the selection of the correct medicine.
Trying to determine whether a person's mental state caused his physical disease or vice versa is rarely helpful in discovering the correct homeopathic medicine. Most of the time, this determination is moot. Instead, the homeopath seeks to find a medicine that matches the totality of the person's physical and psychological symptoms, irrespective of "which came first."
Even the "which came first" issue is much more complex and deceptive than one might initially presume. Most of us may have said at one time or another that we got a headache or some other symptom after getting angry, being depressed, or becoming fearful and that this emotion "caused" the headache. The emotional stress, however, may be only the veritable "straw on the camel's back" that results in the collapse of the camel (or in the development of the headache). This collapse wasn't necessarily "caused" by a straw, but may have resulted because the camel was already carrying a load of 500 pounds, i.e., because we were concomitantly experiencing various physical, environmental, and other stresses in our life.
Too often we assume that something that happens close to the time we develop symptoms is "the cause" of our problem. It is however always easier to look for the effects of causes than for the causes of effects. In actuality, what we assume to be the "cause" is probably but another effect or another stress. The "cause" of a phenomenon is not so simple and may not ever be known. The Greek philosopher Democritus understood this paradox when he said that he would rather understand one cause than be King of Persia.
Contemporary psychologist Lawrence LeShan also questioned the value of finding the "original cause" of a mental disorder. He noted, "One does not put out a forest fire by extinguishing the match that started it."
The homeopathic alternative to treating psychological and physical diseases is to assume that mind and body are undeniably connected and that a microdose must be individually prescribed based on the totality of the sick person's symptoms.
From a homeopathic point of view, the prevalence of mental illness in our society is not simply the result of living in a fast-paced, stressful society, but also because our medical care system has effectively suppressed various physical illnesses. Homeopaths assert that by treating symptoms as "causes" rather than as "effects," conventional medicine masks the symptoms without curing the underlying disease process. Homeopaths theorize that, worse still, the treatment and suppression of symptoms forces the disease process deeper into the organism so that it then manifests in more severe physical pathology and more serious psychological disorders.