5 Alternative Therapies for Your Mental Illness

For many years now, when it comes to treatment for mental illness, the focus has been mainly on a combination of medication and talk therapy. Are these really the best treatment options? What are some alternative therapies for mental illness? Below I will list 5 great therapies you should try!

The Traditional Treatment Options for Mental Illness

I am a strong believer that taking only psychiatric medication is not the best treatment for mental illness. I understand the chemical imbalance and that medication can help with this.

However, I believe that it is just a band-aid. To really fix the problem, we need to go deeper than this. I know they help many people, but I think they should be combined with something else.

I am not currently taking any medication. Because I am diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), the suggested treatment is Dialectical Behavioral therapy (DBT). Medication will not treat BPD, but they will often be prescribed to alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms that come with it.

I have been on medication in the past, and although I have seen a slight change in my mood, that feeling of depression deep down inside of me always remained. I’ve also been on medication with very strong side effects, so for these reasons I choose not to take medication.

Alternative Therapies for Mental IllnessFor those looking for an alternative to medication, there are a number of natural supplements to treat depression, including 5-HTP which works similarly to antidepressants by providing serotonin boosts.

Talk therapy has many benefits. It can shed light on your illness, and gives you an opportunity to let it all out. Talking to someone about your feelings and emotions can go a long way in the treatment of mental illness.

I see someone on a bi-weekly basis for an hour. When I am with her, I talk about struggles I had during the week in regard to managing emotions or controlling certain negative behaviors. She then gives me tools to help me in these difficult situations. It’s been very helpful for me, but I feel I need more.

According to clinical research, exercise can be as beneficial as antidepressants. The study compared three groups receiving different treatments: antidepressants, an exercise regime, and a combination of antidepressants and physical activity. The results showed that although those taking medication had faster results, long-term benefits were the same in all groups.

I have started exploring some alternative therapies that would interest me. What I plan on doing is trying out a bunch of different options and find what works best for me. I hope to be able to shed some light on some of the options available and encourage others to try them out as well.

5 Alternative Therapies for Mental Illness

Dance Therapy:

Dance therapy works on the premise that music has a powerful impact on our emotions. It changes our mood, and can even trigger memories. When combined with movement to the music, the effects are therapeutic.

Compared to traditional dance classes, a dance therapy class is much different. The dance therapist is not focusing on the technical aspect, and nothing is choreographed. Dance therapy uses movement to express emotions.

While doing my research on alternative types of therapy, I came across this video where Katie tells us about the impact of dance/movement therapy on helping to manage her eating disorder.

Because emotions and feelings can come up during the dance therapy, you may find it beneficial to talk about this afterwards. In some instances, this may be with the dance therapist, but could also be with your psychotherapist or another counselor.

Some of the benefits of dance therapy are:

  • Relieves stress: dancing provides you with a sense of freedom that can eliminate daily stress in our lives. It is common for someone to start a dance therapy feeling highly anxious, and within moments of starting to dance they feel better.
  • Helps express emotions: for a variety of reasons, people have difficulty expressing emotions. After dancing to a song, the teacher can ask the class how it made them feel.
  • Improves physical health: Dancing is also a great way to get in some cardiovascular exercise.
  • Inspires creativity and imagination: the dance teacher will get the student to use their imagination by creating various scenarios. The teacher may also choose an emotion and ask people to think of a memory and dance based on the emotion and memory.
  • Boosts self-esteem: because it is a therapeutic environment, the dance teacher is going to make everyone feel special and welcome. Some dance therapy groups will even put on shows to showcase their accomplishments.

Music Therapy:

Music therapy has become very popular in psychiatric hospital and other treatment facilities for mental illness. It is something that patients look forward to and sincerely enjoy doing.

According to Music Therapist Molly Warren, “Research shows the benefits of music therapy for various mental health conditions, including depression, trauma, and schizophrenia (to name a few). Music acts as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief—but music can also be utilized as a regulating or calming agent for anxiety or for dysregulation”.

Basically, musical therapy is showing to be beneficial for everybody!

Alternative Therapies for your Mental IllnessMusic therapy has many approaches depending on the type of mental illness and severity of the patient. In some cases, the music therapy will simply be playing an instrument or singing with a group. This provides a sense of accomplishment and belonging. More in-depth methods will try to bring unconscious thoughts to the surface through music.

Examples of activities in music therapy are:

  • Playing Instruments
  • Writing songs
  • Singing
  • Improvisation
  • Analyzing and discussing lyrics
  • Visualization
  • Creative expression

Art Therapy:

Art therapy does not focus on what you create, but rather on how you feel while you are creating it and what you learned about yourself. It uses art in a controlled setting as a safe way to express emotions without verbalizing them.

What is good about art therapy is prior artistic experience or talent is not necessary. I was always intimidated by art as a form of expression because I can’t draw. Basically, the limit of my visual arts skills are coloring books and paint-by-numbers. But, so many people have been telling me that skills are not important.

There are art therapy techniques you can try at home, but to really grasp its maximum benefits, it’s best to find a trained art therapist to guide you.

Alternative Therapies for Mental IllnessesArt therapy can be beneficial in many ways including:

  • Manages negative behaviors: creating art can distract you from acting in a negative way. Maybe you’re mad and feel like throwing something, but instead expressing your feelings through art can be a more positive way to let out emotions.
  • Reduces anxiety: drawing or coloring can have a relaxing effect on the body.
  • Creates social interaction: many people with mental illnesses tend to exclude themselves socially. This creates positive social interactions with people who also want to improve their mental health.
  • Increases self-awareness: emotions you may not realize you have will come out in your art. This can lead to a better understanding of yourself.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (or zootherapy):

Animal-assisted therapy is based on interactions with animals to help treat mental illnesses. It is well-known that animals can make us feel good. Personally, whenever I feel sad, I hug and pet my dog and it provides me with a sense of comfort.

For the most part, animal-assisted therapy is not standalone. What I mean is that it will be used as a tool in combination with their preferred therapy method. I also want to point out that animal-assisted therapy is not the same as having a service animal.

Lauren Salvatore Farkas, Psy.D, provides us with a great video explaining animal-assisted therapy. What I liked about this video is that she gives examples in the real world.

Some of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy are:

  • Caring for the animal will give a sense of responsibility. Especially in children, it helps them have more self-control, empathy and develops social skills.
  • It can motivate a patient to continue treatments. Because of the special bond humans build with animals, knowing that you will see your animal friend if you go to therapy can motivate you to get up and go.
  • They have a calming effect people, reducing stress and anxiety.

Laughter Therapy:

We’ve all heard the expression: “laughter is the best medicine”. There are so many studies that show how laughter can have benefits on both our physical and mental health.

Laughter therapy is easy! You just need to find a way to laugh, and reap the benefits:

  • Sense of relaxation
  • Restful sleep
  • Helps with depression and anxiety
  • Helps you think more clearly
  • Encourages creativity
  • Improves mood
  • Builds a connection with others
  • Improves brain function
  • Relieves stress
  • Improves negative feelings and emotions
  • Improves memory and alertness

Laughter therapy can be something you practice at home, by yourself or with a group of friends. You can also do it in a community based group by trying laughter yoga.

Alternative Treatment for Mental IllnessI tried laughter yoga this week. We were a group of about 10 people with a facilitator who was guiding it. For the introduction activity, she had us shake hands with everyone in the room without saying anything. We had to look them in eye, shake their hand and laugh.

In the beginning this was a little awkward, especially since I didn’t know the other people in the class. But after a while you realize that we all look like a bunch of idiots shaking hands and laughing and it makes you laugh even more, this time for real.

She then guided us through a visualization of us going on vacation. We acted out all the steps of preparing for the vacation, driving to the airport, taking the plane, going to the beach, and going out dancing. While acting these out everyone is laughing continuously.

For the most part you are genuinely laughing but at certain times I had to force myself to laugh. Eventually this fake laugh turns into a real laugh. It allows you to take a moment, laugh, and bring out your inner child.

Finding treatment for your mental illness can be very tedious. It is really a matter of personal choice, based on your abilities and comfort level. I know it can be hard, but it’s important to go out and try different options.

I would suggest you chose an alternative type of therapy, search on google for options in your area, and go try it out. By going there, you will also meet other people who could open your eyes to other types of treatments for mental illnesses.

If you have any questions or comments, I would be happy to hear from you. Also, if you have any other suggestions for alternative therapies, please share because I am on the hunt for things to try.

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  1. Every alternative therapy truly has the effects to help you cope and even overcome mental illnesses like depression.
    Animal assisted therapy has quite the positive effect on me, my dear companions weren’t trained for such a task, but after i had to move away and leave them with my mother I realized how much they were helping me cope…Even now im trying to have that interaction with a cat or a dog…they make my uneasiness fade.
    Thank you for sharing this information, more people need to know there is ways to cope and get out of that dark space.

    • Thank you for sharing. I agree. I am away from my pooch (who wasn’t trained as a therapy dog) and going through a bit of a rough time at the present moment with my physical health. This brings be down mentally and not having him around is difficult. I miss that comforting feeling he brings me.

  2. Great article. I know for me it is hard to stay depressed if I am getting exercise regularly. And if I get my exercise with my dogs, it is a double benefit. Throw in a comedy club with some friends and I feel tons better. Thanks for a great article.

    • You are right. When dealing with mental illness it can be hard to find the motivation to get up and do these things, but the benefits are so worth it.

  3. Music to me is the bread and butter for feeling better when I am down, it gives that awesome pick me up which i need, when going through tough times. (I will do some of that dance therapy too) I find shouting really loud in an open space really helps too.

    Thanks for the great article Sylvie:)

  4. What an insightful read! I’ve heard of music and animal therapy, however I’ve never heard of art and dance therapy. Both sound like wonderful avenues to decrease the detrimental effects of mental illness. I also love your inclusion of videos. Thanks for sharing this info! Best of luck.

    • You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it. I love these alternative forms of therapy because you are doing things that don’t feel like therapy.

  5. Such great information here.
    i too have been through the dark side of mental illness and so glad that I found a way of managing it.
    I like the idea dance therapy and laughing therapy. Such great ways for an alternative route.
    Meditation has been the key for me bunched with a whole host of natural remedies.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am so happy you found a way of managing it as well. I am starting to get into meditation as well and I believe it can be very helpful.

  6. I feel like I’ve been doing all of these things without naming them as therapeutic, especially the dance and animal therapy. I too have BPD, although my depression does respond to stimulant antidepressants, thank god. Therapy twice a week and trying to keep my life full of lightness and warmth is a big part of what keeps me well. I am going to frame my musical and dance endeavors as “therapy” from now on, for sure!

    • Absolutely, even when it’s not “official” therapy these activities are very therapeutic.

  7. Hi Sylvie, perfectly written article. Music and my love for my dogs balance my sanity.. hehehe =) It is interesting to read that these forms of activities form part or I may say aid in having therapeutic benefits. I guess all of us, deep down, diagnosed or not, have our own mental challenges. Having read what you have shared guides us, that in moments when we feel beaten, that there are always several ways to make us feel better, stronger and more capable of handling ourselves. Again, thanks for your very heart-warming article.

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