Holistic treatment: is laughter really the best medicine?

By Dite Bagdonaite

The astronomical success of Bo Burnham’s 2021 comedy special Inside reveals a universal truth: comedy is inherently tied to all extremes of the human experience.

Burnham himself recognises the complicated relationship between his comedy and mental health, having taken a four-year hiatus due to his panic attacks on stage.

Conversely, Inside exists in a state of flux – the viewer is a voyeur watching the specific deterioration of one man’s mental health in isolation. And yet, they find catharsis in its commonality. Equal parts pervasive and perversive, it is irrefutable that Burnham’s special uniquely encapsulates the spirit of the times.

From John Cleese to James Acaster, the breadth of the comedic spectrum proves how distinctively personal humour is, and how engrained it is in public life. It should therefore come as no surprise that Bristol University is piloting a wellbeing course based on stand-up this month. Angie Belcher, the driving force behind the project, foregrounds many points as to its efficacy; ‘We [can] support people to write about these situations, help them to become the protagonist of their experience and inspire them to bring that version of themselves to the stage. The process of learning how to frame your experience as comedy has a cathartic and healing effect.’

There are risks, holistic ‘treatments’ often skip or bypass crucial trials and testing

A more holistic approach to medicine is not itself a new trend, with Complementary and Alternative Medicine earning itself its own acronym within NHS jargon, CAM. However, only two branches of alternative treatments are subject to statutory professional regulation: osteopathy and chiropractic. Yet, it must be recognised that health inequalities and long waiting lists are driving people towards unorthodox therapies – notably, the hashtags #alternativemedicine and #holisticmedicine have garnered over 50 million views on TikTok. However, there are risks as such holistic ‘treatments’ often skip or bypass crucial trials and testing.

Patient choice, since the landmark ruling in Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board [2015], has become a pivotal tenet of our healthcare culture. In an article from 2011, The Atlantic’s David H. Freeman made the farcical claim that the increase in popularity of new-age treatments is ‘in large part because mainstream medicine is failing’; if CRISPR/Cas9 and malaria vaccines are anything to go by, he was wrong and continues to be.

Some proponents of home remedies and traditional medicine lambast the ‘unnaturalness’ of treatments, finding little irony that some of the things that appal them have equally organic origins – for one, the chemotherapy drug Taxol is synthesised from a compound found in yew leaves.

Holistic care needs to stay holistic and not offload unregulated cure-alls instead of mainstream medicine

The popularity of integrative medicine need not be cause for concern, providing it stays within its remit and remains a complementary treatment. Sham companies and multilevel marketers who make promises to and prey on the sickest in society differ significantly from therapists who focus on assuaging side effects. There is no harm in recommending honey for a sore throat paired with, not replacing, anti-inflammatories for the flu. The potential vulnerability of those targeted by treatment trends means holistic care needs to stay holistic and not offload unregulated cure-alls instead of mainstream medicine.

Despite anecdotal evidence that some types of more integrated treatment can reap rewards, the availability or, more aptly, lack thereof, of CAMs on the NHS means that such treatment is not likely to enter the mainstream. The personalised character of holistic treatments does not necessarily translate well into the clinical trials necessary to prove efficacy. Cut-throat budgets mean that more experimental medicines will, rightly or wrongly, remain the purview of those who can afford them.

The highly individualised nature of mental health may translate better into experimental schemes like that of the Bristol Wellspring Settlement Social Prescribing Team. After all, the NHS itself recommends a variety of treatments from CBT to talking therapies, the latter of which arguably has parallels with the comedy pilot. However, it equally galvanises the right-wing with Richard Littlejohn mocking the ‘wokery’ of the project for the Daily Mail. The NHS is ultimately between a rock and a hard place with complementary and alternative medicine; the scheme will have to prove itself with tangible results as all holistic treatments should.

Image: Andrew Petersen via Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.