Last week I reviewed the book “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” which covers the huge increases in mental health problems in our culture, especially in children. The author suggests a big part of the problem is the very drugs used to treat such conditions. While some patients seem to respond well to long-term use of psychiatric medications, for most they significantly worsen the patient’s overall mental health after a few months, the author found.

What are the alternatives to these medications? Not surprisingly, they involve natural, drug-free treatments, which have been used for centuries. For example, exercise has been shown to be very effective, especially against depression. In the U.K., not only do doctors regularly prescribe exercise, but there is communitywide support for the treatment. Unlike medications, which have serious side effects, exercise has side benefits — weight loss, lower blood pressure, improved sleep, more social engagement and most importantly overcoming the feeling that one is a helpless victim of the disease.

Counseling has also been shown to be effective in treating mental illness. One study in Finland looked at patients who suffered their first psychotic episode, comparing patients who were given the usual medications to others who got intensive counseling for the whole family and mostly did not get medications. There was little difference initially, but by three years the group that only had minimal drug use was doing much better. They were three times more likely to be free of psychotic symptoms.

Of course, diet can have a huge effect on mental health. Eating whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods, especially sugar, benefits the brain, as well as the whole body. Some patients respond well to a gluten-free diet; I have seen patients for whom eliminating wheat makes all the difference in their mental health. Healthy fats are important; depressed patients tend to have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. For this reason, I do not recommend a low-fat diet, but rather a diet rich in healthy fats. I also use a “whole foods” type of cod liver oil supplement.

It seems the basic rules of wellness and disease apply to mental health every bit as much as any other health problem. Many cases of “mental illness” are the result of normal stressors like adolescence or abuse, and are best addressed naturally and without drugs.

The more severe cases, which do involve a disease process, do better with medical care.

When the more routine cases are treated as a disease and start with medical care, especially medications, the outcomes can be disastrous.

Unfortunately, anyone who resists this approach is “swimming upstream” against a veritable tidal wave of medical pressure. There are frequent TV ads for drugs for all kinds of mental health problems. Doctors are quick to prescribe them, not knowing that the drug companies “cooked the books” about the effectiveness and safety of their drugs. Drug companies have paid millions, even billions, in fines due to illegal promotion of their wares to children. One company worked with doctors to mail free samples of Prozac to patients whose charts showed they had a history of depression.

Things have gotten so bad that ADHD and antipsychotic medications have been prescribed to children as young as 2 years old.

It takes a strong person to resist this onslaught. If you are interested in alternatives, my advice is to find a provider who does not automatically prescribe a drug for every psychological symptom, especially in teens and children.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at