The Holistic Approach to Mental Wellness

by Traci Moore

What is Holistic Medicine?

The holistic model of health care is based on treating the “whole” person, taking into consideration the mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual states of well-being. Unlike traditional medicine (or “allopathic medicine”) which addresses the symptoms of a condition or disease, holistic medical practitioners evaluate the patient’s complete health picture and examine how all body systems interrelate before determining a plan for healing.

In recent years, more and more people whose chronic ailments have been unsuccessfully treated by allopathic medicine are considering holistic medicine. Certainly modern medicine has its merits; but the main purpose of surgery and medications is to attack illness, rather than create health.

Holistic medicine is more preventive in nature than allopathic medicine; it strives to help the body achieve balance and optimal health, prevent disease, and decipher the true source of an illness or condition. Thus, holistic therapies are especially helpful to people with the ability and desire to be proactive in their healing.

What is Holistic Mental Health Care?

Mental well-being can be improved and enhanced by an array of natural, holistic modalities that range from acupuncture to art therapy. The holistic model supports the idea that body chemistry, spirituality, diet, nutrition, and other factors can impact the brain in diverse ways.

Tyler Woods, Ph.D., a Tucson-based holistic health practitioner, explains that holistic mental health care stands “outside the realm of traditional care”, with practitioners demonstrating a willingness to look outside the box when treating a patient’s mental condition. Woods believes that the best practitioners are thorough and ask patients the right questions in order to help them seek the most beneficial courses of treatment. After twenty years of working with clients in the social service field, Woods retired as a psychotherapist in 2004 and opened the Mindhance Wellness Center. The catalyst for Woods’ shift was her realization that the root of her depression was undiagnosed diabetes, a condition she believes a holistic practitioner might have discovered earlier.

What Triggers Mental Health Conditions?

Physical illness and psychological symptoms are often caused by imbalances in the body. A common contributor to mental health conditions such as irritability, depression, anxiety and ADHD, (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), is a poor diet. Years of consuming the wrong foods can create allergies and sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, Candida overgrowth, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hormonal imbalances, all of which can impair healthy brain function. The brain requires a regular supply of adequate nutrients. Without these nutrients, one’s emotions, perception and behavior can be affected. One may develop symptoms – mild to severe—that range from simple melancholy to anxiety, autism, hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive conditions, learning problems, drug and alcohol addiction, and even schizophrenia.

Classically-trained psychiatrist Mary Beth Ackerley MD, MD(H), ABIHM, takes a holistic approach to her Tucson health care practice. She stresses that wheat and gluten sensitivity can also cause health problems. “Gluten sensitivity occurs when your body tries to digest gluten and ends up fighting the gluten particle as if it were a foreign invader. This leads to inflammation and a decreased ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients from food. Eating foods to which you’re sensitive decreases your serotonin levels; this can have a markedly negative impact on your mood, and can cause you to turn to simple sugars and carbohydrates for relief.”

Eight key factors that may cause or intensify mental health conditions are:

    1. Blood toxicity, resulting from heavy metals or environmental chemicals (especially lead and mercury)
    2. Improper diet, particularly poor quality or processed foods, or foods containing wheat, gluten, sugar, artificial sweeteners and dairy products (to which many people are highly sensitive)
    3. Lack of exercise
    4. Drug and alcohol use and abuse
    5. Hormonal or chemical imbalances in the body
    6. Psychological factors, including traumatic events, prolonged untreated stress, self-destructive beliefs, serious financial hardships, etc.
    7. Genetics as evidenced by a family history of mental health conditions or hormonal imbalances
    8. Lack of support from family, community or spiritual groups

Tyler Woods notes two other major contributors to mental health conditions: unattended stress and grief. “We think stress is normal, but it can cause deeper problems such as fibromyalgia, insomnia and depression. Many people I’ve spoken with recently have lost jobs or homes and have become depressed, withdrawn and require medication. When they don’t sleep, they can’t function in life.”

What Solutions Do Holistic Mental Health Practitioners Offer?

Patients with mild to moderate mental health conditions have many natural choices for treatment. Among the modalities practitioners suggest are acupuncture; traditional Chinese medicine; massage; nutritional, herbal and exercise therapies; yoga; talk therapy; homeopathy; and art therapy.

Holistic modalities require patients to be actively involved in their healing. Some treatment regimens like diet and exercise programs require significant effort, but can turn into lifelong healthy habits. Many of Dr. Woods’ and Dr. Ackerley’s patients have dramatically improved their mental health by becoming diligent about improving their diets. Dr. Woods reminds us not to forget the saying “we are what we eat.” She adds, “If we continue to get adequate sleep and exercise, and keep moving, we’ll feel better. Look what happens to water in a pond: if it doesn’t move, it becomes stagnant.”

Like Woods, Ackerley believes that exercise is crucial to maintaining or improving our mental health. “Studies show that mild exercise is highly beneficial for depression. The need to exercise isn’t going away. It’s like brushing your teeth; you need to do it for the rest of your life. Spend time trying different forms.”

Dr. Deb Hayes, Ph.D., is a Tucson therapist who uses an integrative, multi-theoretical approach to therapy. She, like Dr. Woods and Dr. Ackerley, believes that mental health counseling, which includes cognitive therapy and stress management, is of enormous value to anyone suffering from mental health symptoms.

Woods suggests that volunteering is a great holistic cure, “one that allows a person to become involved in something very positive outside of his or her negative situation.” In addition, she stresses the importance of a healthy spiritual life. “A good sense of spirituality promotes self-esteem, improves motivation, and helps people come to terms with powerful inner experiences. Medical studies indicate that spiritual people exhibit fewer self-destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, gambling and risk-taking.”

When practiced appropriately, and under the care of a holistic practitioner, holistic mental health therapies have proven successful for many people. However, people with severe mental conditions such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders may initially require more of a traditional treatment approach.

How Do I Find a Holistic Mental Health Practitioner?

Doing a little homework before visiting a holistic mental health practitioner is always recommended. Prospective patients may wish to check practitioners’ credentials and professional memberships prior to receiving a first treatment or consultation. Training can vary, ranging from experience only to advanced degrees earned from accredited institutions. Practitioners may be affiliated with national and local organizations in their field, such as the American Board of Holistic Medicine (AHBM), the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA), the American Holistic Medicine Association (AHMA), the Arizona Board of Homeopathic and Integrated Medicine, and the Arizona Medical Board. Some of these organizations offer a comprehensive list of practitioners. Integrative medical professionals or those who maintain private counseling practices may also specialize in holistic mental health care.

Before suggesting a course of treatment, practitioners traditionally take a significant amount of time addressing the patient’s complete heath history. They also understand that each patient is unique, and will therefore tailor a specific treatment regimen to each individual.

Prior to their first appointment, patients may wish to “interview” one or more prospective practitioners by phone. Alternatively, the patient may prefer to write a list of questions, concerns and expectations that he or she can discuss during a first appointment. Ideally, patient and practitioner will make a comfortable connection that facilitates the healing process. If a connection is not made after the first few appointments, patients always have the option of choosing a different practitioner. Feeling at ease with a practitioner can be just as essential to one’s mental wellness as the holistic therapies themselves.

Dr. Deb Hayes, Ph.D., LPC, LISAC, HHP, PLLC, is a therapist who believes that thoughts, behaviors, and feelings interact and are shaped by environmental, biological, social, cultural, interpersonal, and spiritual contexts. She has been trained in a variety of counseling and psychotherapy approaches, including holistic health, which offers drug-free alternatives to psychiatric medicine. Contact her at 520-981-4547 or

Dr. Tyler Woods, Ph.D., has worked in crisis intervention and suicide prevention since the early 1990s. A board-certified holistic health practitioner though the American Alternative Medical Association, she earned a BA in Holistic Psychology, a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a Doctor in Philosophy in Holistic Health. She offers healing alternatives that support emotional and healthy well-being. Contact her at 520-861-6632 or visit

Traci Moore is a writer and editor who holds a BA in Studio Art/Photography from Scripps College and a Certificate in Creative Writing from Phoenix College. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications. For more information, visit

Mary Ackerley, MDMary Ackerley MD, MD(H), ABIHM is a classically trained psychiatrist and homeopathic physician who specializes in the holistic treatment of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, digestive disturbances and hormone replacement therapy.

She can be reached through her clinic MyPassion4Health at 520-299-5694 or online at