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Heal Thyself

A new trend promises better mental wellness without the help of Western medicine. Is it unsafe—or just what we need?

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Over the past few years, self-care has shifted from expensive, instant-satisfaction indulgences such as manicures and massages toward consistently nourishing pursuits such as prioritizing sleep, developing a regular meditation practice, and spending time with loved ones. It’s an evolution, driven by a much-needed awareness for better mental health, that makes self-care more accessible and, as a breadth of research suggests, supports true, long-term well-being.


But even as outdated notions of self-care fade from our social media feeds, a new trend is cropping up: #selfhealers. Its followers posit that Western medicine isn’t the holy grail of healing, that an individual­—as opposed to a physician, therapist, or health practitioner­—already has the tools within themselves to recover from unhealed trauma, unhealthy relationships, mental health conditions such as anxiety, and even genetic diseases.

In pastel Instagram quotes adorned with inspiring captions (some examples: “Let shit go,” “Repeat positive affirmations,” and “Identify emotions”), the notion feels encouraging. Similarly promising is the advice of self-healers to find relief through tools such as shadow work (exploring the negative emotions and impulses of the self), Reiki and acupuncture (both of which can be used to treat mental as well as physical health), diet, yoga, Ayurveda, and unlearning codependency patterns. After all, there is plenty of evidence that many of these practices can improve mental wellness and overall well-being.

The potential dangers: The self-healing movement is vague and involves a defiance of research-backed science, medicine, and Western treatments that have been proven helpful to many people. Any message that discourages people from feeling like they can include treatments that could help them has the potential to do harm, says Nancy Zucker, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University.

For example, if someone is suffering from anxiety and depression and feels that their current psychiatrist or medication isn’t working for them, they might interpret social media self-healing messages as needing to eschew psychiatry or medication altogether, instead of switching providers or drugs and combining those therapies with other self-care practices such as exercise and meditation.

Health care isn’t black or white and sometimes multiple approaches are needed. But every option should be on the table when you’re trying to work your way back to feeling balanced and whole, as we are in yoga, says Rebecca Butler, a yoga instructor in
Fort Worth, Texas.


The Appeal of DIY Healing

Some holistic practitioners who refer to themselves as self-healers are self-appointed; others are medically trained psychologists who reject what they have learned in med programs. They often reject what is widely accepted as the authoritative handbook in Western psychology for mental health, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The periodically reviewed manual describes mental health disorders and symptoms and provides criteria for diagnosing them. Zucker says the DSM is useful for matching patients with treatments that have been proven effective for particular diagnoses, but what an individual does with a diagnosis is another matter. Some individuals might self-identify too closely with their disorder (instead of seeing themselves as a person who also happens to be diagnosed with a particular disorder). The big question to ask, Zucker notes, is if a diagnosis is giving someone a point to explore further or holding someone back from life experiences, such as socializing or trying a new hobby, that could help them feel better. Other experts criticize the DSM for not taking into account the environmental, social, and cultural influences on psychiatric illnesses.

Nicole LePera (@the.holistic.psychologist) is one of the largest proponents of self-healing and holistic psychology. LePera takes specific issue with the traditional Western approach to mental health and the DSM in particular. The psychologist-turned-Instagram influencer, who boasts 2.9 million followers—including celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dax Shepard, and Lena Dunham—has claimed that mental illness doesn’t run in families but rather develops from trauma. That’s not always the case, though: Research by the National Institutes of Health has found that at least five major mental health disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, do have a genetic link. In a 2019 Instagram post, LePera referred to addiction as a “coping mechanism to regulate the nervous system” rather than a disease. However, there is evidence—including a landmark 2016 report from former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD—that it can be a chronic illness. (LePera declined to comment for this article.)

There are plenty of skilled, licensed counselors who specialize in holistic therapy. But there is no specific licensure for holistic counselors. This absence of accreditation may be the biggest hurdle facing the movement’s legitimacy. Brendan Vermeire, a functional medicine consultant and holistic health practitioner, acknowledges that the self-healing industry is akin to the Wild West and calls for a standard of education. “It’s a little too free and open,” he says. Still, Vermiere notes, “If an uncredentialed health coach can do work that medical doctors are turning a blind eye to, then it shows the gaping holes in our health care systems.”

Butler is drawn to LePera’s posts about self-healing because she doesn’t believe that Western medicine understands all there is to know about healing. She likes that self-healing encourages people to seek out new therapeutic methods without asserting a one-size-fits-all approach. “I don’t see [LePera] saying, ‘Only do it here’ or ‘Don’t reach out for help.’ I see her saying, ‘Here are some tools,’ not, ‘These are the only tools.’”


The Price of Western Medicine

Self-healers are also quick to point out that Western treatments aren’t always accessible or welcoming to all. Traditional psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is often expensive, for example. Jamila Reddy, a writer and self-empowerment coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, says this holds true particularly for Black people and other people of color, who may have less faith in the medical community at large due to historical racism and the fact that they traditionally receive worse care than white people.

Reddy’s interpretation of self-healing is one of empowerment: “When I talk about it, I am thinking about tapping into our inherent potential to choose our response to what happens to us and what happens around us and to create some healing for ourselves and not relying on other people always.”

But since the definition of self-healing is imprecise, others may interpret it differently. Dionne Powell, MD, a psychoanalyst at Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research who works for Cornell Medical Center and the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education at NYU, says there’s potential for harm if people perceive self-healing as something they have to do entirely on their own. For example, attempting to recover from a mental health condition such as severe depression or an eating disorder, or facing childhood trauma without reaching out to friends, family, or health practitioners for support or help. “The ready access to self-healing [messages on social media] makes it sound easy. But healing is much harder to do,” she says.

Put Yourself in the Driver’s Seat

Self-healing has positioned itself as the antidote to Western medicine, but there are actually similarities between the two. “People coin a phrase or create a hashtag, and it makes something seem novel that might not actually be,” says David Austern, PsyD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. For instance, when Austern sees a patient who is living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he doesn’t simply prescribe medication or therapy. He also asks about their sleep, relationships, and spiritual life—many of the same factors that self-healers consider paramount. “We need [to understand] the whole person because all of those factors might influence how their symptoms are potentially manifesting,” Austern says.

Ultimately, all patients’ values and preferences are different­—and therefore so is their most effective treatment. Individuals have to make their own choices about which tools are most useful, no matter what any hashtag promotes.

“There are so many different types of medicine and healing out there,” says Kat Fowler, an energy healer and Reiki teacher who hosts The Soul Awakening Podcast. “There’s Chinese medicine, sound healing, crystal therapy, hypnosis, and so many healing arts to explore and see what resonates with you, and that’s part of the work,” she says. The goal, according to Fowler, is to understand which treatments exist—Eastern and Western, and any amalgams between—and for people to use modalities and treatments that work in tandem to support their mental well-being.

Reddy likens it to operating a car: “You might have a doctor and therapist and plant medicine and prescription in the back seat and passenger seat,” they say. “But you are the person who is driving.”