Excerpted from Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century, North Atlantic Books
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 drugs, 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These various treatments are either outdated or have been moderated, and yet, it remains questionable if modern psychiatric care is optimum.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 progressed in 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) (For more information about Dr. Menninger and his experiences with homeopathy, see Dana Ullman’s book, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy.)
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.
Homeopaths and biologists alike acknowledge that living organisms respond to stresses in ways that primarily allow for survival. Organisms will protect their most vital processes first. Homeopaths therefore assume that the person’s mental state is vital for survival insofar as it governs the state of awareness that makes decisions on how to respond to stressful or life-threatening situations. The organism will protect the most deep psychological level most strongly and will first externalize various superficial emotions. Likewise on a physical level, certain vital organs, especially the brain and the heart, will be protected before other organs.
Homeopaths operate on the assumption that the organism creates the best possible response, based on its present abilities, to whatever stresses it is experiencing. Because homeopaths view symptoms as adaptive efforts of the organism to respond to stress or infection, they assume that efforts to control or suppress these defensive reactions can lead only to more serious symptoms. The evidence supporting this assumption is in any pharmacology text which lists the side effects of drugs. It becomes immediately apparent that the side effects of drugs are often more serious than the condition they are treating. And predictably, these side effects include various acute and chronic mental symptoms. A classic example of this phenomena is witnessed in the use of corticosteroids (cortisone and prednisone), used to suppress skin eruptions and asthmatic attacks. In addition to the various side effects of these drugs, corticosteroids are also known to induce depression and even psychosis, which diminish when the drug dosage is reduced or stopped.
Psychological symptoms, too, are thought of as ways in whicha person is trying to adapt to biological and psychosocial stresses. Such symptoms should not be suppressed, unless medically essential. Instead, a homeopathic medicine should be individually prescribed based on the totality of the person’s symptoms. The correct homeopathic medicine will catalyze an healing process that will raise the person’s overall level of health. To complement the prescription, good homeopaths will provide some psychotherapeutic support based on homeopathic principles (See “Psychotherapy–Homeopathic Style”). And of course, homeopaths will, when appropriate, refer clients to various other health practitioners.
The Homeopathic Treatment of Psychological Problems
Several schools of psychologists categorize people in certain psychological or characterological types. Others in medicine, genetics, and sports categorize various “body types.” Homeopaths, in contrast, acknowledge certain “bodymind” types. They determine their medicines based on the constellation of physical and psychological symptoms.
Choosing the correct homeopathic medicine is at once a highly systematic and an artful process. Edward C. Whitmont, M.D., one of the founders of the New York Jungian Training Center and a homeopath since the 1940s, has written eloquently about the homeopathic bodymind types. In his book Psyche and Substance: Essays on Homeopathy in the Light of Jungian Psychology, Dr. Whitmont describes a dozen key medicines that homeopaths use, the role that each of these substances play in nature, the chemistry of each substance and how it acts the way it does, the symptoms that it is known to cause in human beings when given in toxic dose, and the bodymind type it is known to treat and cure. (10)
In a similar fashion, Philip Bailey, a homeopath in Australia, has written Homeopathic Psychology in which he describes the bodymind types in light of specific personality types.(11)
In order to give a sense of some specifics of these homeopathic typologies, I will describe two medicines, Arsenicum album (arsenic) and Nux vomica (poison nut). The following descriptions are brief summaries. For more detailed information about them, consult the books by Whitmont, Bailey, articles by Vithoulkas,(12) and various materia medicas. (13)
The person who needs Arsenicum is an overanxious, restless, fearful, perfectionist type of person. He or she has a driven nature; an anxious state over anything specific or just things in general; and suffers from a fussy meticulousness, all of which create a high strung and nervous individual. In general, people needing Arsenicum tend to assume that there are hostile forces at work in the world and that they must work vigilantly against them. They have a deep-seated insecurity, from which develops a dependency on others, a possessiveness of objects and people, a tendency towards fastidiousness, and deeply-felt anxieties and fears. They may have various anxieties and fears, especially about their health, their future, and their financial status, all of which are heightened when they are alone, and then diminished when they are with others. To reduce the chances of things going wrong, they become overconscientious. They overprepare for everything and are inordinately fastidious.
Physically, the person who needs Arsenicum is usually thin, fine-haired, delicate skinned, with pale or alabaster complexion. They perspire easily and profusely and are extremely sensitive to factors in the external environment. They are particularly sensitive to any exposure to cold and feel better from most forms of heat. They tend to experience burning pains which are relieved by warm applications, and if they have those pains in the stomach, they are relieved by warm drinks. Milk, fruit, ice cream, and alcohol may aggravate digestive or other symptoms. Most commonly, their physical and psychological symptoms will be particularly apparent at midnight and shortly after.
The symptoms which typify the Arsenicum type are often seen in insomniacs. Because the symptoms of Arsenicum are worse late at night and because these people tend to be perfectionistic, they usually require things to be “just right” in order to fall asleep. Part of their hypersensitivity to the environment lies in a sensitivity to noise–any noise.
Part of their overconscientious nature is an anxiety about health. People who need Arsenicum are often hypochondriacs. They have many, many symptoms, and even though they may have had them for a long time, they still want the practitioner to get rid of them immediately. As the result of this anxiety, they tend to go to a variety of doctors and usually try many types of alternative therapies. These people also tend to become addicted to various pain relievers or other medications that temporarily diminish their pain. Also, because of their anxious and restless nature, they may use drugs or alcohol to slow them down and help them relax.
Arsenicum is also a common medicine given to people with anorexic tendencies. People who need Arsenicum tend to have anxieties about the food they eat, sometimes thinking that all food is toxic and that they shouldn’t eat at all. Another part of their personality that fosters anorexia is their perfectionist nature which tends to encourage a thinner and thinner waistline.
Nux vomica has several similarities to Arsenicum but more distinct differences. People who need Nux are hurried and impulsive, like those who need Arsenicum, though Nux people are more prone to irritability, anger, and maliciousness. Even those Nux people who have learned to control their rage tend to feel a hyperirritability and anger inside themselves struggling to be expressed. They are dissatisfied, rarely content, hypercritical of others, impatient, and jealous. They are very competitive. They will compulsively compete, even in certain games or job situations where competition isn’t appropriate.
Like people who need Arsenicum, Nux people will be fastidious. Whereas Arsenicum people will usually become anxious and nervous as they try to hold in their disgust for messes, Nux people will often get irritated and visibly angered by lack of order and cleanliness.*
[* It must be noted that homeopaths recognize that a person can be neat, orderly, and fastidious in a healthy way. However, whenever homeopaths refer to fastidiousness as a symptom, they are referring to a state where the individual is overly concerned about cleanliness and order.]
People who need Nux tend to be extremely self-reliant, a distinct difference from those who need Arsenicum and theirdependence upon others. Nux people will overemphasize achievement, to such a degree that their life will become dominanted by their work. They will take on greater responsibility than they are capable of, becoming increasingly irritable and demanding.
Classically, people who need Nux represent what is called in psychology the “authoritarian personality.” (15) They want to force things their own way. To achieve security they adopt a powerful authority and demand that those in inferior positions submit to it. Whitmont describes them as perfect bureaucrats. They are rigidly moralistic and will condemn others who violate Nux’s moral code. And finally, they repress socially disapproved tendencies and project them onto others.
Nux people also have a soft side. They are sentimental and may cry from listening to certain music or seeing beautiful things. And despite a rough exterior, they cannot stand the least pain. They may cry even after a bout of anger. Since they can’t stand the least opposition, they may cry from frustration. Despite this occasional tendency to weep, it has been consistently observed that, though they may be sad at times, it is often impossible for some people who need Nux to cry.
Physically, people who require Nux may be husky, solid, and muscular, or they may be lean, bent forward, and withered. They are physically and emotionally irritated by exposure to cold, drafts, noise, and light. Their worst time of day is upon waking, and it usually takes an hour or so to wake up. They sometimes feel an urge to take a nap. If they are accidently awakened from this nap, they become highly irritated. They may suffer from insomnia because of their very active mind which constantly ruminates about the many irons they have in the fire.
They tend to overeat, with cravings for fats, spicy foods, and milk. They may experience various digestive and nervous symptoms which are aggravated by foods that they tend to crave, especially milk, meat, fats, and coffee. Commonly, they will be constipated and have much gas.
Typically, people who need Nux to sustain their hyperactive nature by drinking coffee, imbibing alcohol, and taking various stimulants. They are therefore prone to alcoholism, drug abuse, and malnutrition. They may be friendly when they are sober; however, when they are drunk or high, they tend to be abusive, cruel and violent. They will ridicule and scorn others. They thus have tendencies to wife and child abuse. They also have strong sexual desires, and they tend to demand much from their sexual partner. Their strong sexual desires may also lead them to raping others. However, if they have drunk too much or taken too many drugs, they may become impotent, even after the effects of these substances has worn off.
People who need Nux also have classic “Type A” behavior. They are prone to being workaholics and will often demand a similar level of commitment to work from others. As the result of this hyperactivity, they tend to become hypertensive and are therefore prone to heart disease.
Arsenicum and Nux are two of the many homeopathic medicines used to treat people suffering from psychological and physical problems. Homeopaths commonly treat people with acute and chronic psychological disorders, including depression, anxieties and phobias, and emotional and mental states of confusion. Homeopaths also commonly treat people with substance abuse problems.
The late Dr. Jack Cooper was the Chief Psychiatrist for 17 years at New York’s Westchester County Prison and Jail. Although he didn’t initially use homeopathic medicines at his work in the prison, he was very impressed with the results he received when he finally began to do so. He found that the prisoners he was treating with homeopathic medicines were becoming more able to cope with the withdrawal of drugs and alcohol. Of particular importance, Dr. Cooper also noted that for several years there were no suicides in the prison, whereas both before he began using the medicines and after he left, there were several suicides every year. Dr. Cooper found that the homeopathic medicines were having dramatic effects on the prisoners’ physical and mental health. And of personal significance to Dr. Cooper, he found that his work was no longer frustrating, but rewarding and worthwhile.
Dr. Cooper’s practice outside the prison included the treatment of many alcoholics. He conducted an informal study of alcoholics treated with homeopathic medicines. As a way to measure the effects of these medicines and to diminish the possible effects that his own presence may have created, he didn’t actually see the patients himself in most cases. Instead, he talked to a loved one or relative who intimately knew the alcoholic’s physical and psychological symptoms. Of the approximately 30 patients in the study, Dr. Cooper found a 50% cure rate, which he defined as a significantly decreased desire for alcohol and the ability to drink socially without excessive physical or psychological symptoms. (15) Homeopathy actually has a history of successful treatment of various psychological disorders. In 1874 the first public institution for the homeopathic treatment of the insane was opened in New York–the Middletown Asylum for the Insane (later called the State Homeopathic Hospital, at Middletown). Comparing the rate of discharge from conventional vs. homeopathic mental hospitals in New York between 1883 and 1890, we find that an average of 30% of patients were discharged from conventional hospitals every year, while 50% of patients in homeopathic hospitals were discharged. Although one can quibble about these statistics for one reason or another, it is less possible to question the fact that the death rate in conventional mental hospitals was 33% higher than that at homeopathic mental hospitals. (16)
By 1899 seven states in the United States had public mental hospitals under homeopathic supervision, and two of these states had more than one. (17) More recently, two British homeopaths evaluated 120 cases of various neurotic disorders in 1953. Their overall improvement rate was 79% after six months, an impressive statistic when one considers that most of their patients had been ill for at least a year, and many for several years. (18)
Psychotherapy: Homeopathic Style
Too often people assume that psychological problems require psychological solutions. Since some psychological symptoms arisefrom physiological processes (and vice versa), it is of value to treat the psychologically sick person holistically. A holistic approach is inherent in homeopathic care.
A homeopath prescribes the individually chosen medicine for the sick person, but he or she may do more than this. When appropriate, a homeopath will provide basic information on nutrition, exercise, stress management, and social and environmental determinants to health and disease. A homeopath may also counsel the person to help him or her deal with the emotional and mental state he/she is experiencing.
Today, many modern psychoanalysts utilize homeopathic-like perspectives and practices. In contrast to some philosophical theories that assume that human nature is essentially destructive and perverted, integral to homeopathy and many psychoanalytic practices is the assumption that human nature is basically creative and that the organism has implicit self-healing capabilities. Symptoms, including psychological ones, are presumed to be ways that the bodymind is trying to adapt to and to deal creatively with various internal and external stresses.
Some very simple psychotherapeutic processes that might be considered “homeopathic” in their approach are “paradoxical intention” (19) and therapeutic double-bind (20), which try to dislodge the symptom and thus to set a curative process in motion. In these systems the therapist actually encourages the patient to pretend to experience the problematic emotional state. For instance, if a person has a phobia of snakes, he or she is asked to pretend to see a snake and to pretend to feel afraid. This method is effective insofar as the person is sometimes not able to produce the fear at will and then not as susceptible to have the phobia at other times.