Sorry for the late post. Next post should be on time tomorrow.
Understanding Alternative Therapies
For purposes of this discussion, I am using “Alternative therapies” to refer to mental health therapies which are not commonly available and/or are often not covered by insurance.
Alternative therapies cover a lot of ground, and I can only begin to introduce them here. Because of the diverse range of alternative therapies it is impossible to effectively summarize them, and I’m not going to try. Instead I’m goingt o introduce three of the most well known and accepted alternative therapies.
Types of Alternative Therapies
Art therapy uses art creation as a means of treating mental illness. Art therapy can take several forms. Every form of art therapy starts with a person suffering from mental illness creating art to express how they feel. Two very common forms of art therapy are the use of art therapy as a spring board, and the use of art therapy to express and come to terms with emotions.
Art therapy as a spring board–some psychologists, and all trained art therapists, are able to use art to identify a patient’s needs. One of my teachers in college described working with a young boy who constantly drew pictures of guns firing, trains, and a few other things. My teacher described putting these drawings together with the boy’s interest in Superman (faster than a speeding bullet….) to understand that the boy’s drawings were expressing a desire to be strong and powerful, a desire the boy wasn’t able to express directly. In my own experiences with art therapy, I once drew a multi-colored star, using pastels (my favorite art medium). When I finished the star I was compelled to take the black pastel and draw thick lines caging the star in. If had been working with an art therapist who was using my art as a spring board for further therapy, they probably could have easily identified what I didn’t recognize until years later–that I was feeling trapped and unable to express myself.
Art therapy as expressing and coming to terms with emotions–the old G.I. Joe cartoons used to end with a moralistic skit and the phrase “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” In an odd way, this is true in mental health. Our mind is a dark and mysterious place, and we can only shine a light on parts of it. If we can’t recognize that (as a random example) we are feeling trapped and unable to express ourselves, we aren’t able to start getting ourselves out of the trap.
Art, as my own experience demonstrates, allows us to express things that we aren’t aware of feeling. This can be a powerful way of coming to terms with the dark spaces in our mind, and by extension managing our mental illness.
Similar to art therapy, music therapy using self expression through music to help develop self awareness and encourage healing. Music therapy also has other applications in treating autism and other developmental disorders, pain management and other areas.
I have no experience with professional music therapy, but as a teenager I (like many kids in the US) took piano lessons. When I was depressed, I would pull out my song book for Les Miserables, and play, over and over again, the most depressing songs from that musical (and if you know Les Mis, you know it has a LOT of depressing and sad songs). The singing seemed to purge the worst of the sadness and depression, and I would always get up from the piano able to function at least a little better. To this day when I find myself reaching a non-functional level of depression, I start singing. It doesn’t stop the depression, but it does purge the fog enough that for a short time I can get things done.
Most people are familiar with Seeing Eye Dogs. But fewer are familiar with the use of therapy animals. Therapy animals generally take two forms, a service animal trained to provide therapy, support, and assistance to a specific person, and therapy animals who visit a number of people for an hour at a time (sometimes called “animal assisted therapy). Exposure and interaction with animals to known to trigger a relaxation response in the mind and body, and for people struggling with mental illness the simple an unquestioned acceptance and caring of an attentive animal can be a wonderful thing.
Therapy animals that make “house calls” (usually hospital calls) need to be well behaved, love to interact with people, and not react badly to other animals or loud noises. People who are struggling with mental illness can spend time holding, cuddling, playing, or just sitting with therapy animals who are happy to give the humans they visit the love and acceptance they need. The instinctive relaxation that comes from an animals presence can allow people suffering from anxiety or PTSD a blessed break from the constant tension and stress caused by their illness.
Therapy service animals need to be everything regular therapy animals are, plus highly trainable. Therapy service animals are trained to recognize the signs of illness in their people and provide whatever assitance they can. Examples of therapy service animals include:
- A cat who when her person was having a panic attack would sit on her chest and purr until the attack was over
- A dog who would, without being ordered, fetch their person’s anti-anxiety medicine when their signs of an anxiety attack
- A cat who, if her person was leaving the house, would stop her if she had forgotten to turn off the stove
Alternative Therapies to Avoid
The specific therapies I have covered here are generally accepted and promoted by medical and psychiatric professionals. Leaving aside any issues with the medical and psychiatric industry, that means they are at mininum safe to participate in.
However there are many alternative therapies, and not all of them have been subjected to studies or overview. A few years ago, a new alternative therapy known as “rebirthing” became popular for a time. Many psych professionals warned that it had not been studied and there was no reason to believe rebirthing actually helped. Spending time and money on a useless therapy is bad enough, but anyone seeking treatment for mental illness becomes familiar with it. But rebirthing wasn’t just a potentially unuseful therapy, several people were severely injured, and at least one died, during rebirthing “treatments.”
It is impossible for me to cover all possible alternative therapies here, especially since new ones are being developed all the time. And over time, many alternative therapies become accepted and standard treatments. At one time CBT was an alternative therapy. Art and Music therapy are slowly moving toward wide spread acceptance and regular insurance coverage. If you are contemplating an alternative therapy, do your research. Discuss the therapy with a psych professional you trust. Look for a professional association about that therapy and studies done to confirm the effectiveness of that therapy.
Be safe and protect yourself.
How Alternative Therapies Work
Sadly, we need to go with the usual answer here “Good fucking question.” While there are theories to why some alternative therapies are effective (such as the relaxation response to animals), how and why alternative therapies work is largely a grey area.
By and large, alternative therapies have been studies far less extensively than more standard therapies, and it is often impossible to even cite a success rate for alternative therapies, much less a reason for their success.
How to Access Alternative Therapies
The most accepted alternative therapies, such as art, music and animal therapy, are easiest to access through institutions. Psych wards, psych rehab centers, community clinics, etc, will often include the more accepted and mainstream alternative therapies. These are also the settings where alternative therapies are most likely to be covered by insurance (at least in the US).
You can also seek out private therapists who offer alternative therapies. If an alternative therapy has a professional association (For instance, the American Music Therapy Association) they will often have information for finding a therapist on their website.
Therapy service animals in the US are usually only available to people who are legally disabled. It is possible to pay for a privately trained service animal, but these animals will not benefit from the protections available to an “official” service animal. For instance, you cannot be denied an apartment if your service animal is “official” but a privately trained “unofficial” service animal will restrict you to housing that usually allows pets. If you feel you or a loved one would benefit from a trained service animal, you will need to seek out information locally on the requirements and availability of getting one.
Impact on Polyamory
Art and music therapy have a similar impact on poly as talk therapy. Especially the post session trauma and the growth-as-change impact. Animal assisted therapy usually won’t have an effect on poly unless one of your partners is allergic to dogs and you come home covered in dog fur.
Obviously, getting a therapy service animal will have an impact, especially on poly partners you share a home with. While adding a trained animal to the home is not like adding an infant or another poly partner, it will change the dynamics of the home.
This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.