Here’s Our Guide to Integrative Mental Health – A Holistic Approach to Therapy

Here’s Our Guide to Integrative Mental Health – A Holistic Approach to Therapy

There are myriad ways that people can deal with emotional suffering, from drugs to psychotherapy to lifestyle changes. Within each of these broad approaches, there are then much more specific avenues to take — a specific drug, school of therapy, or dietary change that provides the improvements in mental health someone is looking for.

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Here are the Main Differences Between Integrative Mental Health and Traditional Mental Health Treatments

AspectIntegrative Mental HealthTraditional Mental Health
DefinitionCombines conventional mental health treatments with alternative therapies to address psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being.Primarily focuses on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders using evidence-based medicine, including medication and psychotherapy.
Treatment ModalitiesUses a mix of conventional therapies (medication, psychotherapy) and alternative treatments (acupuncture, meditation, herbal remedies).Relies mainly on psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, with some use of other evidence-based treatments as needed.
Approach to Patient CareHolistic approach considering the patient’s lifestyle, environment, and personal beliefs in addition to their symptoms.Typically symptom-focused; treatment plans are often standardized based on diagnosis.
Evidence BaseVaries widely; some therapies are well-supported by research, while others lack rigorous scientific evidence.Strong, with treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy and certain medications having a robust evidence base.
Focus AreasEmphasizes wellness and prevention, targeting underlying causes of mental health issues rather than just symptoms.Primarily targets symptom relief and management of specific mental health conditions.
Patient InvolvementHigh; patients often play a significant role in choosing therapies and setting health goals.Varies; traditional settings may offer less flexibility in treatment choices, with decisions often guided more by the practitioner.
Cost and AccessibilityCan be higher due to inclusion of treatments not covered by insurance; however, some options may be cost-effective or even free.Generally covered by insurance, making it more accessible; however, there can still be barriers like high deductibles and limited provider networks.

Defining Integrative Mental Health

Integrative mental health differs from the traditional biomedical approach in the following ways.

  • It includes lifestyle factors like diet, movement, and stress, as these can often be an underlying cause of illness.
  • It blends conventional and complementary approaches to address symptoms in the most effective way.
  • Integrative mental health strives not to rigidly adhere to one particular paradigm over another. Integrative mental health combines approaches that include different modalities, like psychotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), nutrition, and bodywork.

Both the biomedical and biopsychosocial models leave out many of these evidence-based methods for improving people’s mental health.

Like the biopsychosocial model, integrative mental health sees different factors that interact in a way that impacts our overall mental health. But to reiterate, integrative mental health includes many more factors than those psychiatrists will traditionally look at.

In the integrative mental health model, these elements include the below.

  • Nutrition and gastrointestinal (GI) health
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices
  • Environmental factors
  • Family and social connections

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In Defense Of Integrative Mental Health

Supporters of integrative mental health argue that many factors influence mental health. In essence, each individual is to experience lasting and meaningful healing in different ways, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

We can’t just focus on drugs because social and cultural factors are at play. If some individuals only attend psychotherapy to seek relief from suffering, they may be neglecting how an unhealthy lifestyle is affecting their mood.

But if you only pay attention to diet and exercise, while ignoring how trauma and childhood experiences impact you today, then you may not achieve the kind of well-being and growth you want.

James Lake, MD, the author of Integrative Mental Health Care: A Therapist’s Handbook (2009), states in an article for Psychology Today:

“Integrative mental health care is a rapidly emerging paradigm that combines prescription medications, psychotherapy and a range of evidence-based CAM [complementary and alternative] therapies. Highly purified natural products are now widely used to treat depressed mood and other mental health problems. Omega-3 essential fatty acids derived from fish oil, kelp or flaxseed oil have beneficial effects at many levels in the body and brain and are commonly recommended by family doctors and psychiatrists to increase the beneficial effects of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and other psychotropic medications.”

Indeed, integrative mental health aims to combine treatments that are effective, based on an individual’s needs. There is justification for including some complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) and other approaches promoted by the integrative mental health model.

Let’s now examine all of the factors included in the model and the reason why they deserve attention.

Nutrition And GI Health

What we eat, the supplements we take, and the state of our gut health can all impact our mental health. Promising research has found the following.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in fish oil and certain marine algae, can effectively alleviate depression. Two omega-3 fatty acids — EPA and DHA — are thought to have the most potential for helping people with mood disorders.
  • The best diet for mental health appears to be a whole-food diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed protein, with minimal junk food and sugar.
  • Our gut microbiome is connected to our mental health. Promoting gut health through fermented foods (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir) could help alleviate issues like depression and anxiety.
  • Vitamins with a link to mental health include folic acid (vitamin B9), thiamin (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, and vitamin D.


The evidence on how sleep affects our mental health is strong. Studies show that various mental health conditions often have an association with poor sleep, which itself can worsen a person’s well-being.

By improving sleep, you can improve your mental health. Strategies that help include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and having good sleep hygiene. The latter would include the below.

  • Maintaining a steady sleep schedule
  • Using relaxation techniques like meditation
  • Avoiding caffeine in the evening
  • Dimming your lights and putting away electronic devices an hour or more before bed
  • Maximizing comfort and support from your bed
  • Blocking out excess light and sound


The impact of chronic or long-term stress can be significant, negatively affecting both our physical and mental health. This kind of stress, as well as stressful life events, are have a close link to depression and anxiety. Likewise, they can exacerbate mental health conditions like schizophrenia.

Things that can make us extremely stressed include:

  • Bereavement
  • Divorce
  • Losing a job
  • Money problems
  • Work

Ways of relieving stress and, therefore, improving our mental health include:

  • Leading a more stress-free lifestyle
  • Building supportive relationships
  • Eating healthily
  • Exercising regularly
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation
  • Good sleep hygiene


Traumatic events are often at the root of many mental health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and eating disorders. By prioritizing psychotherapeutic approaches that focus on trauma, people can address an essential cause of their distress.

Spiritual And Cultural Beliefs, And Practices

Our cultural beliefs can negatively impact our mental health. For instance, mental health stigma, which makes us feel afraid and ashamed of our emotional distress, can encourage feelings of isolation and even further suffering.

Social or cultural expectations also have an effect on how we feel: as a case in point, a society that associates beauty with thinness can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

However, what we believe can also improve our mental well-being. Research shows that having spiritual beliefs and practices can help many patients. On the other hand, spirituality can sometimes worsen people’s mental health.

In terms of common spiritual practices, there is evidence that mindfulness meditation can be effective in the treatment of depression.

Environmental Factors

There are many environmental factors that can worsen our mental health, typically by increasing our stress levels. These factors include aspects of our physical environment and major life events, such as the following.

  • The death of a loved one
  • A dysfunctional family life
  • Changing jobs or schools
  • Abusing substances or living with a parent who does so
  • Living in a noisy environment
  • Living in a highly populated city, which can feel lonely
  • A lack of urban green spaces or natural surroundings nearby

Family And Social Connections

Humans have been called an “ultra-social animal“. For evolutionary reasons, we depend on others for our happiness. People who have a social connection to family, friends, or their community experience fewer mental health problems than people who do not.

Meanwhile, isolation is a strong predictor of emotional distress, and it can worsen many conditions.

Based on all of the above factors, it would seem unwise for mental health professionals to ignore them when addressing the emotional suffering of an individual. While not every one of these elements will be relevant in this respect, it’s still important to take an integrative approach.

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Lead image via Pixabay – Brian D’Cruz, Hypno Plus

Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

Abid Nazeer

This post was medically approved by Abid Nazeer

Dr. Nazeer is the Founder and President of APS Ketamine/Advanced Psychiatric Solutions, which he established in 2016 as the first psychiatric outpatient ketamine clinic in Illinois. He is board certified in Psychiatry as well as Addiction Medicine. He completed his psychiatry residency at Louisiana State University Health Sciences in Shreveport where he held the role of Chief Resident. Dr. Nazeer is providing medical oversight to the growth plan of Wesana Clinics, with the model of comprehensive psychiatry clinics specialized ketamine and psychedelic therapies, integrated brain health and wellness centers, and technology utilization of Wesana Solutions remote patient monitoring product.

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