A number of years ago, a young woman in her early 20's we'll call Samantha sought out homeopathic treatment for difficulties she was experiencing during pregnancy. She had given birth just a year or so earlier and had experienced problems toward the end of her term. Now, this tine around Samantha was complaining of extremely low energy, poor digestion, generalized itching and irritability.
Daniel (not his real name) was distraught and in tears the first time we met. It wasn’t an appointment - he had just dropped by the office with his wife to ask if homeopathy might help. Waves of emotions passed over his face as we spoke and he seemed barely able to contain whatever pain he was experiencing within himself. There was no physical illness as far as he knew – or so he explained, but mentally Daniel felt at the end of his rope and wasn’t sure if or how to carry on. Actually, when the time came, I wasn’t sure he would show for his appointment. We had set it up for a few weeks out because of some traveling he had planned and my schedule. In such an acute state, who knows what might happen between now and then? But, in fact, there he was right on time…
Before heading off to Ghana, I was given the impression from past volunteers with whom I spoke that most of the cases in the village clinic of Mafi Seva would be relatively simple ones of acute illness or injuries. This turned out to be not entirely accurate.
The cases were simple in the sense that they were fairly straightforward. Unlike my own practice where many patients have chronic degenerative diseases, autoimmune illness or complex mental states often complicated by medical and dental interventions as well as multiple prescriptions, the people I saw in the village presented with conditions and histories that were less involved. There were fewer strands and influences to untangle, and overall responses to the remedies seemed to be more immediate.
As was his nature, Samuel Hahnemann minced few words in describing his first hand observations of the treatment of the mentally ill. In a footnote to his Organon of the Medical Art, which was first published in 1810, he wrote:
One must be astonished at the hard-heartedness and indiscretion of physicians in several mental institutions. These cruel physicians, without seeking the true medical mode for such diseases…content themselves with tormenting these most pitiable of all human beings by means of the most violent beatings and other excruciating martyrdoms…. They lower themselves far beneath the level of prison guards, for prison guards execute such punishments only because it is the duty of their official position and do so upon criminals…1
A woman I’ll call ‘Sandra’ came in for an appointment after a hiatus of over a decade. Originally, she had been successfully treated for some menstrual issues as well as skin rashes, but I lost touch with her after she moved away. With the prospect of moving back into the area plus the advent of Skype (which is a wonderful tool to do consultations at a distance), she decided to get back in touch regarding some more recent health concerns.
It seems that in the interim, Sandra had experienced some difficult times, and had gone on a psychoactive drug for a number of years. At a certain point, she decided it was time to be in the world without the assistance of this pharmaceutical and began to wean herself from it. It was a slow process, but she was in fact able to withdraw completely from the medication.
Having done that, she felt quite ‘moody’, swinging between various emotions without much rhyme or reason. She ‘didn’t feel herself’ – this was certainly not the way she felt while on the medication, nor was it similar to the way she felt before being medicated.
At our first consultation after having re-established contact, I spent several hours with Sandra updating her history and discussing her condition in great detail. This, in and of itself, was not unusual. It had been a long time and to reacquaint myself with her it was necessarily to pretty much start from scratch again. But what was unusual was the fact that her case wasn’t very coherent from a homeopathic perspective.
The process of a homeopathic consultation – and the reason that it can take several hours (or more) – is generally designed to culminate in a fairly comprehensive, integrated understanding of the patients state, physically, mentally and emotionally. The remedy is then chosen to reflect this state of the entire person.
Naturally, it isn’t always possible to arrive at this goal in one sitting. But as a rule, an experienced homeopath will get a somewhat coherent picture of the patient. Unfortunately, in Sandra’s case, that picture seemed quite muddled and inconsistent.
After we finished, I gave quite a bit of thought to Sandra’s case – reviewing my notes, organizing and reorganizing the information, and consulting reference material. This, too, is not an unusual process for a conscientious homeopath. Sometimes the remedy selection for a particular patient is quite straightforward and requires little time beyond the consultation itself, but there are always cases where the selection of an appropriate remedy is a more involved, even arduous, process.
Despite these efforts, my investigation into Sandra’s case provided little direction from a traditional or classical homeopathic perspective. But I did have a hunch as to why this so, and rather than consult once more with Sandra herself to try to further my understanding, I decided to act on my hunch.
I sent her a homeopathic prescription of Venlafaxine (Venlafaxine Hydrochloride, to be more exact). While this might not ring any bells in the mind of most people, its more common appellation ‘Effexor’ might.
Venlafaxine HCL has been around for about 20 years, and is an antidepressant – one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the country – belonging to a class of drugs known as ‘serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors’. (Cymbalata is another well-known member of this group.) It is used for ‘major depressive disorder’ often combined with anxiety.
Now, just to be absolutely clear, what I gave Sandra was not Effexor itself, but a homeopathic dilution of the drug. That is, through the homeopathic dilution process, the material aspect of the drug – the molecules represented by the formula C17H27NO2 – where removed and what remained was an energetic pattern or vibrating memory of the substance.
The use of a homeopathically diluted substance or potency to remove the toxic effects of the actual physical substance is not a new or unusual concept. Casual users of homeopathic remedies know that one of the treatments for a bee sting is Apis mellifica – or the potentized form of honeybee, and that rhus toxicodendron, the homeopathic dilution of poison ivy, can be effective for poison ivy rash.
Strictly speaking, this is not a classical homeopathic approach, but a related form of treatment known as ‘tautopathy’. ‘Tauto’ is a Greek word meaning ‘the same’, and tautopathy is a method using a substance in diluted or potentized form to alleviate or remove the residues and toxicity the actual crude substance has caused.
Venlafaxine can cause a host of side effects – increased risk of suicide, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, sleepiness or sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, weakness, dry mouth, constipation and nervousness to name only the most common. It can also cause a potentially fatal reaction called ‘serotonin syndrome.’ In addition, there can be long-term consequences after terminating the drug, a phenomena known as ‘discontinuation syndrome.’
In the short term, the symptoms associated with discontinuation include disorientation, fatigue, headache, poor coordination and nausea. More insidious, are the long-term effects. Drugs like Venlafaxine alter the way the brain works – and the effect remains after the drug itself is withdrawn. Thus a person no longer ‘feels theirself’ – just as Sandra verbalized.
Fortunately for Sandra, at our follow-up visit about a month after taking the homeopathic dilution of Venlafaxine, she was feeling much better. The mood swings had leveled out and a sense of wellbeing was beginning to return.
One of the most powerful incentives that motivated Samuel Hahnemann to create the medical science of homeopathy over two centuries ago was to help those suffering from mental illness. He personally witnessed the horrors of contemporary treatment – the asylums where patients were straight jacketed or brutalized in various other ways and forced to live in the most primitive conditions, usually for their entire lives.
Having successfully treated epidemic diseases and the most serious medical conditions that afflicted people in that era, Hahnemann was certain that the same principles and medicines that had made homeopathy so effective in handling physical ailments would also apply to mental ones. In fact, he was one of the first medical authorities to insist that mental illness was akin to physical illness, but just had its seat in the mind instead of another bodily organ. Today, this might sound obvious, but in 1792, it was quite an insight.
Since that time, Hahnemann, his followers and subsequent generations of homeopathic practitioners have in fact been able to help countless persons with mental illness. Our books are replete with remarkable case histories as well as detailed descriptions of many hundreds of medicines useful in this sphere of treatment.
Contemporary practitioners, though, face a new challenge in the treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Since the 1950’s dramatic changes have swept across the mental health landscape both in terms of popularized notions of what causes mental illness and the way in which it is to be treated. In a sense, it is really the story of the evolution of the profession of psychiatry into a partner with the pharmaceutical industry with a shared common goal to promote prescription medication as the most effective means to treat mental illness.
The details of this story are told in an extraordinary book entitled “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America”, written by a medical journalist named Robert Whitaker and published in 2010. What is remarkable about it is the fact that Whitaker has not written a diatribe against psychiatry, but a steady handed review of research studies and case histories to reveal how a destructive combination of flawed assumptions, misplaced hopes and profit motive have created the contemporary ‘epidemic’ of mental illness in America.
Whitaker’s meticulous scrutiny of the facts leads to an array of significant conclusions about the interface of mental illness and conventional pharmaceutical treatment. Amongst them are the following:
One of the major incentives to establish prescription drugs as the predominant treatment modality for mental illness was a desire to legitimize the inclusion of psychiatry within the modern medical establishment. Psychoanalysis and other forms of ‘talk therapy’ were less ‘scientific’, and, in addition, could be performed by professionals who were not medical doctors. The use of pharmaceuticals was both a way to avoid being marginalized by elevating the status of the profession as well as a way to gain an advantage over the competition by offering treatment that was unavailable from non-MD therapy.
Many psychiatric drugs, especially the first generation discovered in the 1950s, were not developed to treat mental illness at all, but instead to treat some other type of physical disease. It then became apparent that as a side effect, these drugs also seemed to sedate the nervous system or otherwise modify the behavior of patients.
Thus, the treatment was not in fact addressing the cause of the problem nor rectifying the ‘chemical imbalance’, but just distorting brain function to make the patient less prone to certain forms of unacceptable behaviors. This also holds true for subsequent generations of psychoactive medications. People don’t get better per se, they get ‘different’ – and often stay ‘different’. My own clinical experience is that even after withdrawing from these drugs, many people will stay ‘different’.
In spite of this, there has been an aggressive marketing campaign to promote these medications. Various theories were put forth to promote these drugs as curative, when in fact they were not. For instance, perhaps the most well known one is the notion that serotonin deficiency is a cause of depression or other related illness. There is little to no evidence to back the claim. It is basically a myth propagated to encourage the use of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), which are amongst the most popular and profitable drugs in the industry.
In the mid-1950’s, when the first wave of psychoactive drugs were introduced, about 350,000 persons were hospitalized in psychiatric institutions of one sort or another in the United States. One of the chief goals of prescribing these medications was to reduce this number – freeing both the individuals from incarceration and the nation of the burden of caring for them.
But the results show just the opposite effect. Over the next 30 years, the number of persons diagnosed as mentally disabled tripled. Again from the late 80’s, when the second generation of psychiatric drugs – led by Prozac - was introduced, the numbers increased again. Most startling is the fact that in this period of time the number of young Americans on mental disability has grown 35 fold.
The basic question that Whitaker seeks to answer is why these numbers have increased so dramatically. His conclusion becomes obvious as one reads through his analysis: psychiatric medications worsen mental illness over the long run. This runs the gamut of drugs – from the stimulants used to control children in school to powerful anti-psychotics. They may adequately control short-term behaviors, but over longer periods of time they create unhealthy distortions in brain function as well as produce systemic side effects.
This is the challenge that Hahnemann’s homeopathic descendants face today. It is no longer adequate to treat the underlying issues that psychiatric patients present. Often before a practitioner can even address those, it is necessary to deal with the disturbances caused by pharmaceutical interventions.
This can be an extremely complicated undertaking, depending on what medications – or combinations of medications – have been taken for how long, the willingness or capacity of the patient to wean off of them, as well as the cooperation of family and prescribing medical personnel. Despite these possible complications, it can be a successful and rewarding endeavour.
1. Whitaker, Robert. “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America”. 2010 Crown Publishing, New York