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What does ‘holistic’ mean to our psychiatrists and psychologists?

Here at Dolphin Tribe, we use the term ‘holistic’ a lot.

We use it in conversation with clients and other psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and mental health professionals. It has a big presence on our website. It’s part of our underlying philosophy. But it can be a vague word, with different meanings and implications depending on the situation.

So, you may be wondering, what exactly does it mean when your psychologist or psychiatrist talks about taking a holistic approach to mental health? Let’s take a look.

The many definitions of ‘holistic’

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word itself, without any context, means, “considering a whole thing or being to be more than a collection of parts.” This sounds a lot like the popular and oft-quoted phrase by Aristotle: “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

But the term has been borrowed by many fields, from medicine to nutrition, sports to science, and its meaning changes slightly each time. For some people, it has become synonymous with ‘alternative therapies’ or ‘natural medicine,’ referring to a range of treatments and interventions, including everything from acupuncture to aromatherapy, herbal supplements to homeopathy.

Dolphin Tribe offers Sydneysiders individualised mental health care

To understand how holistic applies to psychiatry, we have to recognise that mental health is not black and white. Some things in medicine are – you have high blood pressure, or you don’t. Your leg is broken, or it’s not – but mental health exists in shades of grey.

It’s not simply good or bad, and it’s not affected by one single factor. Rather, it is interdisciplinary – everything is connected, from physical health to nutrition, families to relationships, community to culture. Mental health does not occur in a vacuum, and it needs to be addressed as the varied, complicated, fluid state that it is.

Which is precisely why, at Dolphin Tribe, ‘holistic’ refers to the many intersecting biological, psychological, environmental, and cultural factors that comprises a person’s life and impacts their wellbeing.

Identifying the role individual differences play in psychiatry

No two people experience life the same way - we are all unique. There are so many factors that influence how we think, feel, and interpret the world, including:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Culture and heritage

  • Faith, religion and beliefs

  • Sexual orientation and gender identity

  • Relationships

  • Personality

  • Life experiences.

It’s important to appreciate how all these factors can affect people’s mental health journey differently. Holistic psychiatrists carefully consider each person as an individual and look at the whole picture, combining different therapies, strategies and, when necessary, medications.

When psychiatry is holistic, the end goal is not simply the absence of a particular mental health condition or symptom: its focus is on complete wellness. That means physical health, self-esteem and self-acceptance, robust relationships and sufficient support. Holistic psychiatric care examines all these intersecting factors to foster sustainable positive wellbeing.

Three key elements of holistic mental health

These three elements are clear signs that you’ve found a holistic psychiatrist for yourself, or your child:

1. Individualised treatment plans – holistic child psychiatrists and psychologists evaluate you as an individual and find which treatments work best for you, your preferences, and your lifestyle.

This can include clinic-based therapies like child counselling or behavioural therapy as well as strategies you can employ at home, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and exercise. It can include working with other medical and allied health practitioners such as occupational therapists and dieticians. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach: this treatment plan is designed for you and unique to you.

2. Emphasis on relationships – strong interpersonal relationships are a significant part of our lives. Holistic psychiatrists appreciate this and want to help you maintain, strengthen, and initiate healthy relationships. This includes professional relationships – both at work and with healthcare professionals, including your psychiatrist or psychologist – as well as social relationships, including friends, family members and partners.

3. Medication is sometimes needed alongside therapy – not every illness or condition can be treated completely without medication. We prioritise psychotherapy that includes the whole family, but sometimes medication is necessary. Your psychiatrist is trained in both psychotherapies and prescribing medication, and in how to determine when medication is needed.

A tailored and holistic approach to child psychiatry

When we consider somebody’s mental health, we need to consider all of the competing, conflicting, confounding factors – and this is never truer than with children. Holistic paediatric and adolescent psychiatrists look at the bigger picture of what is going on in a child’s life, tailoring effective therapies into their treatment plan with the goal of understanding and addressing the underlying problem.

We don’t want to medicate children, whose central nervous systems and immune systems are not yet fully developed, unless absolutely necessary.

When it comes to children, holistic psychiatrists:

  • Start with a thorough assessment. Whether it’s an autism (ASD) assessment, ADHD assessment, or other cognitive or behavioural assessment, the first two or three sessions are spent finding out as much as we can about their abilities and challenges and assessing if there is a diagnosis to be made.

  • Take an integrated approach to treatment, which might mean consulting with other medical professionals and agencies, community organisations, and school staff members.

  • Encourage family involvement and family therapy. Family counselling helps foster supportive environments, clear communication and enhances relationships. It considers every family member’s needs and leads to improved outcomes for the whole family.

  • Focus on psychotherapy. Our treatment is based on various effective styles of psychotherapy (talk therapy) and our psychiatrist prescribes medication only when appropriate and clinically necessary. You can learn about different styles of psychotherapy here.

  • Respect the culture, language, and heritage of the child and his or her family.

  • Prescribe medication only when needed and appropriate, which is very rare for children under six years old.

We need to be careful to differentiate ‘holistic’ and ‘alternative’ in children’s mental health

There may be a role for alternative therapies as part of effective mental health care. But we need to be careful to distinguish ‘alternative’ from ‘holistic’, as these are two very separate entities.

Psychiatry is a medical field, and like everything in science and medicine, anything approved first has to be researched thoroughly in high-quality, peer-reviewed, double-blind studies. On the other hand, the success of alternative therapies is often anecdotal, meaning some people might believe a therapy or supplement helps, but it hasn’t been proven when upheld to the rigorous standards of scientific studies.

There are a few things to be aware of in the world of alternative medication for children:

  • Even if an alternative medication has been studied on adults, very few have examined how they may affect young people.

  • Herbs and supplements may interact with prescription medicines and other supplements.

  • A substance that is natural may not necessarily be safe.

  • Herbs and supplements are not regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia. This means that the preparation can vary greatly from one brand to the next.

  • A balanced diet, good sleep hygiene, and regular exercise are essential for a child’s physical and mental health. Herbs and supplements are never a substitute for healthy eating.

If you are considering an alternative therapy for your mental health care, it’s important to learn more about the risks and benefits. Discuss complementary medication with your health care provider.

Looking for a truly holistic psychiatric practitioner in Sydney?

The Dolphin Tribe clinic in Sydney is strongly rooted in taking a holistic approach to mental health. Our psychiatrists and psychologists believe each patient deserves to be treated as an individual, and our treatment plans reflect this.

Learn more about our holistic view of child and adolescent mental health here or contact us for more information.

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