Alternative Approaches to Mental Health

Traditional medical and therapeutic methods have improved over the years, but often they do not completely lessen or eliminate symptoms of mental illness. As a result, many people use complementary and alternative methods to help with recovery. These nontraditional treatments can be helpful but it’s important to remember that, unlike prescription medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve most of them.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) favors the term "Complementary health approaches," which encompasses three areas of unconventional treatment:

  • Complementary methods where non-traditional treatments are given in addition to standard medical procedures
  • Alternative methods of treatment used instead of established treatment
  • Integrative methods that combine traditional and non-traditional as part of a treatment plan

Data is still lacking on the effectiveness and safety of many complementary practices, but there are studies supporting that some of these strategies seem to have minimal, if any, adverse effects.

Natural Products

Some people find that taking supplemental vitamins and minerals lessens the symptoms of their mental illness. There are several ways these substances may help.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are group of chemicals found in a number of different foods, including fish. Studies have found that certain types of omega-3 fatty acids are useful in the management of both medical and mental illnesses. Research shows that for young people experiencing an episode of psychosis for the first time, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids may help decrease their risk of developing a more chronic and serious form of schizophrenia.


Folate is a vitamin required for the human body to perform many essential processes on a day-to-day basis. Also called folic acid or vitamin B9, folate is a compound that the human body is unable to make on its own. Some people with mental illness have been shown to have low folate levels and may benefit from treatment with additional folate supplementation. At the current time, the FDA has approved only one form of folate—lmethylfolate (Deplin)—for use in the treatment of depression and schizophrenia. Lmethylfolate has not been approved as a primary treatment, but rather as an additional form of treatment.

Medical foods

Medical foods are another type of product containing natural ingredients. These are foods made with or without specific nutrients to help treat a health condition. For example, gluten-free foods are designed to give people with celiac disease the nutrients they need but without the gluten which makes them sick. Like supplements, medical foods are not as closely monitored by the FDA as prescription medicines.

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Last updated: 1/9/2019