Holistic Psychiatry: Why Is It So Important?

Last Updated on March 7, 2024 by Lindsay Delk, RDN

Holistic psychiatry, holistic mental health, integrative mental health, and functional psychiatry are areas of mental health that are being talked about more and more. But what do they mean, and why are they important?

Consider these statistics:

  • 1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness each year.
  • 1 in 6 US youth (6-17 years old) experience a mental health disorder each year.
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in people 10 to 34 years old.

Let those statistics sink in. 

Now, think about the fact that prescription medications don’t work or don’t work completely for many people with these mental health problems. When medications don’t work for a patient, he/she feels even more hopeless and frustrated. And this is why a holistic approach to mental health is so important!

This post was written by Lindsay Delk, RDN. It is for informational purposes and is not intended to replace medical advice or instructions given by your healthcare provider.

An infographic from NAMI showing mental health statistics
Source: https://www.nami.org/mhstats

What Are Holistic Psychiatry and Holistic Mental Health?

To understand holistic psychiatry and holistic mental health, you must first understand what the word holistic means. It doesn’t mean all-natural, alternative, or against conventional methods. In fact, it is quite the opposite. 

According to Merriam-Webster, holistic means “relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts.” A holistic approach to mental health or overall health refers to whole-person care. It considers your mind, body, and spirit as a unified whole.

  • Holistic psychiatry and holistic mental health are more than responding to mental illness. They are also focused on promoting good mental health and well-being. They consider your physical, emotional, and social needs. It is a total way of life that promotes your wellness as a whole person.
  • Holistic practitioners take the time to find out what makes you unique and what types of treatment will work best for you as an individual. They don’t use a “one size fits all” approach. 
  • They help you get to the bottom of the underlying causes of your mental health problems. These could be thoughts, feelings, behaviors, diet, and/or lifestyle.
  • Holistic mental health professionals believe that they are partners with the patient. They work together to find the best solutions and techniques for mental wellness.
  • The ultimate goal is mental wellness. Holistic mental health care also focuses on preventing illnesses and symptoms from forming in the first place.
Holistic spelled with letter tiles surrounded with white flowers

A Holistic Approach to Mental Health

Most health symptoms, including mental health symptoms, come from a complex interaction of many factors. These factors include your: 

  • Genetics
  • Biochemistry
  • Background
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Social support
  • Environment
  • Lifestyle 

Holistic mental health care will try to address each one of these factors. If you address only one factor, you may not experience total relief from your symptoms. And, if you only try one treatment technique, you may not experience full relief. 

For example, if you only try to address one factor, such as low serotonin levels, with only one treatment technique, such as prescription medication, then you have left out many opportunities for total mental wellness and may not even see relief from your symptoms.

Remember, the following factors influence your mental health and well-being:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Culture
  • Religious and other beliefs
  • Upbringing
  • Life experiences
A woman breathing in fresh air and used as an example of holistic psychiatry

An Example of Holistic Psychiatry

Let’s take an example of a person suffering from depression. Some mental health professionals will prescribe medicine and might recommend psychotherapy. A holistic psychiatrist or mental health professional will dig deeper into what could be causing the depression. 

They might find that the patient is struggling in her marriage, recently had a miscarriage, is eating a poor diet, rarely exercises, has negative thinking patterns, and has very poor coping skills. While medication may give her some relief, a holistic approach would look at treatment techniques to address these other factors. 

Along with the prescription medicine, she could begin psychotherapy to work through the struggles in her marriage and cope with her miscarriage. She can make dietary changes and consider nutritional supplements. She could begin an exercise routine with other people to help form more social relationships. And she can learn meditation techniques and breathing exercises to manage her stress and negative thinking. 

If she finds that some of these techniques are not helpful, the mental health professional can guide her toward other techniques to try. This holistic and integrative approach will likely help more than taking medication alone.

Mental health spelled with tiles and a green leaf to represent holistic mental health

Integrative Medicine

Another term for holistic medicine is integrative medicine. According to the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, there are 8 defining principles of integrative medicine.

  1. Patient and practitioner are partners in the healing process.
  1. All factors that influence health, wellness, and disease are taken into consideration, including mind, spirit, and community, as well as the body.
  1. Appropriate use of both conventional and alternative methods facilitates the body’s innate healing response.
  1. Effective interventions that are natural and less invasive should be used whenever possible.
  1. Integrative medicine neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative therapies uncritically.
  1. Good medicine is based in good science. It is inquiry-driven and open to new paradigms.
  1. Alongside the concept of treatment, the broader concepts of health promotion and the prevention of illness are paramount.
  1. Practitioners of integrative medicine should exemplify its principles and commit themselves to self-exploration and self-development.

These 8 principles also apply to holistic psychiatry and holistic mental health practice. A holistic and integrative approach uses a variety of available treatment techniques. These include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • Prescription medications – taking a medicine to treat a specific illness or symptom
  • Psychotherapy – engaging in talk therapy with a psychologist, therapist, counselor, or social worker
  • Nutrition – eating a diet that provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy
  • Relaxation therapies – practicing techniques that help you relax, resulting in slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a slower heart rate
  • Meditation – practicing techniques to encourage awareness and focused attention
  • Yoga – performing stretches and poses while focusing on your breathing
  • Exercise – being physically active on a regular basis
  • Art therapy – using art and the creative process as a therapeutic and healing process
  • Music therapy – using music interventions to meet therapeutic goals
  • Massage therapy – rubbing or kneading the body’s soft tissues

Don’t use any of these techniques to postpone seeing your doctor about a problem. And always check with your doctor before you try any of these therapies.

Silhouette of a woman holding a yoga pose in the sunset

Functional Psychiatry and Functional Mental Health

Functional psychiatry is a holistic approach to mental health. It varies slightly from integrative health but overlaps in many ways. Functional psychiatry and functional mental health address the root causes of brain and mental health. 

Diagnosing mental health problems based only on symptoms doesn’t always find the root cause and true diagnosis. For some people, they may not even have the disease, such as depression. They may have depression as a symptom of another underlying problem. 

For example, a man with low vitamin D levels might have the symptoms of depression. But unless the doctor tests his vitamin D levels, he will not know that low vitamin D is the root cause of the depression. 

While prescription medication might help, he will not have total relief of his symptoms until they address the vitamin D deficiency. The actual diagnosis might be vitamin D deficiency with depression as a symptom. What we called disease wasn’t a disease at all, but a symptom of another problem. 

Once a root-cause diagnosis is made, functional psychiatry provides more individualized treatment for patients and provides a more holistic approach to mental health. It considers mental health as part of the whole person, including the mind, body, and spirit.

Salad greens surrounded by healthy salad ingredients to represent functional nutrition

Functional Nutrition

Without a doubt, nutrition affects our mental health. I wouldn’t be a functional dietitian nutritionist with a website called the Food and Mood Dietitian if research didn’t support that. There is so much information within the area of mental health nutrition that I will cover on this website. 

But for starters, eating a diet rich in the following will make a significant difference in your overall wellness and your mental health:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish and other lean protein
  • Omega-3 fats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fermented foods

If this sounds like a Mediterranean diet, you are right! A healthy Mediterranean diet is the way to go. 

On the flip side, a diet with many ultra-processed foods can cause inflammation and negatively affect your overall wellness and mental health. 

There are many other nutritional factors to explore, such as: 

  • Micronutrient deficiency and supplementation
  • Psychobiotics (probiotics and prebiotics)
  • Specific nutrients and foods that affect mental health
  • The gut-brain axis
  • Nutritional considerations for specific mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and OCD

Read my blog post about the pillars of a good mental health diet here to learn more.

2 thoughts on “Holistic Psychiatry: Why Is It So Important?”

  1. Thank you for explaining to us that with integrative medicine, we use both conventional and alternative methods to assist with the body’s innate response if we want to receive treatment with a holistic approach. I’ve struggled with anxiety for a little over a year now, and while it has been manageable all this time, it seems like my condition has only gotten worse since my diagnosis. I’ll keep this in mind while I look for a holistic psychiatrist in Eugene to call for an appointment soon.

    1. Clare, thank you for your comment. I would definitely look for a psychiatrist who uses a holistic approach. I hope you will read on this website about how nutrition can affect your anxiety, and I hope it helps. Best of luck!

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