I believe that one of the biggest untapped potential of the field of East Asian Medicine is how we can work with mental health. The stigma of mental health is present on every level of our society. Fear of being put on medications, of receiving a disturbing diagnosis, of having to face our psychological and emotional pain…the list goes on. For some, it can be so much easier to approach a holistic care provider of some sort, one who won’t necessarily label you, who can see the connectedness of body, mind, and spirit.
Or so it seems. The reality is that many if not most CAM providers are not trained to deal with people who are in crisis. We’re taught some theory about it in school, but when it comes to learning hands on approaches to working with people whose behavior is bizarre, disruptive, or disturbing, we conveniently default to this being outside of our scope of practice. This may be true, but this person may also not approach a professional for whom it is because of the reasons listed above. If that is the case, we have a unique opportunity to provide care that would otherwise be rebuffed. Why not take that opportunity?
First, we have to deal with our own prejudice against people whose behavior is outside the norm. I’ve dealt with a number of people over the years who other acupuncturists have not liked treating. Rather than seeing this as a failure of the other acupuncturist, I would attribute it to the fact that our education here in the US is geared toward people who are otherwise stable and resourced. The bulk of our clinical training is focused on acupuncture techniques and theory, and not how to work with a wide range of patient populations on a regular basis. While I was given externships at places where there were marginalized and underserved populations, the understanding was always that I wouldn’t make a career out of it because such positions don’t often exist outside of an academic setting in the field and aren’t profitable.
We as a profession need a better strategy on how we work with and view people with behavioral and mental health issues that avoids stigmatization. We have the opportunity to do better than labeling such people as having a “shen disturbance”; working with them through our own unique lens that can empower patients through speaking back what’s going on with them not as a static diagnosis, but as a fluid pattern of interacting elements. We just need to start extending ourselves to this patient base, and begin resourcing ourselves to deal with them better.