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Herbalism as an Aid to Behavioral First Aid

Today mental health tends to come with a stigma associated with it based on the lack of education and knowledge that our society has to offer. As a result of this lack of knowledge, there is a surplus of individuals who suffer from mental health issues that turn to conventional medication as their end all be all. I’m here to shed light on another way. Traditional medicine has been treating mental health centuries before conventional medication even came on the scene. In this post, I will give some background on conventional medicine and medication, the benefits of herbalism for behavioral health care, and identify specific herbs that can aid in mental health crises.

Conventional medication is the medical version of instant gratification and getting results immediately. We live in a society that thrives on instant gratification which is the reason why conventional medication is such a pivotal part of society. According to the National Cancer Institute conventional medicine is:

A system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery.

The drugs that the National Cancer Institute is referring to are generally limited to conventional medication. Conventional medications are man-made products designed to get the fastest and most direct cure for the issue at hand. Alternatively, herbalism looks at the body as a whole to treat the issue at hand (Rang et al. 2011). Both conventional medicine and herbalism have a time and a place but specifically, regarding mental health, the road to recovery is about trusting the process. The problem is, when conventional medicine is introduced, it tends to streamline the healing process which isn't necessarily a benefit. Our society has told us that the faster you can do something the better, but that is not always the case. In the case of mental health, if you avoid the healing process through the use of conventional medication rather than looking at the issue as a whole, it can potentially lead to a longer road to recovery for the individual. In some cases, conventional medication can be a numbing agent in mental health crises which puts a Band-Aid on the situation rather than fully healing the wound.

As mentioned before, herbalism looks at an ailment as a whole; meaning that rather than only addressing the patient chief complaint, an herbalist would treat all the symptoms associated with the chief complaint to discover if the identified ailment is really the true issue or if the real problem is not what meets the eye. For example, in the case of Conjunctivitis (see Figure A) an herbalist would look at the signs and symptoms of the patient and see what method of treatment best suits the patient. This method individualizes each patient's treatment process which can better address each patient's uniqueness.

(Atlas, Angelique. Herbal First Aid (HFA) Model 2020)

Figure A

In conventional medicine, there is a standard protocol for particular ailments. In the case of conjunctivitis, it is recommended that the practitioner should figure out how the patient was infected and then should decide whether the patient needs to just maintain hygiene or be given antibiotics. Although this protocol is meant for interpretation based on each individual patient, many practitioners opt to take the easy way out through the direct prescription of pharmaceuticals:

Patients with infectious conjunctivitis received antibiotic treatment in almost 70% of episodes making the total number of prescriptions for antibiotics by general practitioners remarkably high. It is in contrast with the guideline's recommendations to limit the prescription of antibiotics to those patients with suspected bacterial involvement [1]. (Rietveld, T. 2007)

Our society has normalized the use of conventional medication to the point where it has become a societal norm to receive an antibiotic medication when you have an infection rather than exploring herbal medicine.

Herbalism would be beneficial in the case of behavioral first aid because the treatment would be individualized to each patient, as I previously mentioned. Many of the medications prescribed for individuals who suffer from their mental health have side effects that can potentially exacerbate their condition. According to ACS Chemical neuroscience, “all SSRIs[1] carry a black box warning for increased risk of suicide (especially for patients under 25)” (Wenthur, B. 2013). A warning for the increased risk of suicide for a product that is supposed to aid in the improvement of a person's mental health poses the question. Why use a product that can make a situation worse before exploring a natural alternative? Herbalism should be an option in the treatment of mental health/ behavioral first aid because it offers a method of healing while avoiding adverse side effects such as suicidal ideation. The model below (Figure B) identifies different signs and treatable symptoms associated with acute anxiety. Then, it lists the type of herbs and methods of delivery (ex: drinking a tea created from a dried herb) that would help with the treatable symptoms. Figure C below offers us the names of some key herbs that can be used to treat acute anxiety.

(Atlas, Angelique. Herbal First Aid (HFA) Model 2020)

Figure B

(Atlas, Angelique. 2020 HFA Chart)

Figure C

These models can be used in conjunction by first identifying the most pressing treatable symptom and matching it to the type of herb and delivery method to use and then choosing the necessary medicinal herb or herbal blend. In the case of acute anxiety, if the patient was suffering from excessive sweating and increased heart rate, then you could use the herbal list to determine that you should create a tea that contains Plantain, Lemon balm, and Chamomile so that it has both nervine relaxant and astringent properties. This is just one specific example of how herbalism can be used for many mental health treatments.

Despite the many benefits herbalism brings to the table, there are some drawbacks as well. The downside to herbal medicine is that it takes time and patience. Herbal medicine is not man-made so it often will not provide the super-quick relief that modern medicine sometimes does.

Based on this data, my findings conclude that considering herbal medicine as treatment may take more patience early in the process but can leave the patient more satisfied in some cases. This paper is not arguing that conventional medicine should never be used in behavioral first aid, but instead is advocating for the consideration of other options before directly using pharmaceuticals as an aid.

[1] SSRIs: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors


Atlas, A. (2020) Herbal First Aid (HFA) Model

Atlas, A. (2020) Herbal First Aid (HFA) Chart

Ennis, E. (2014). Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) and adherence to mental health medications. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 14(1), 93–93.

H.P., Rang; M.M, Dale; J.M., Ritter; R.J., Flower; G., Henderson (2011). "What is

Pharmacology". Rang & Dale's pharmacology (7th ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. p. 1. ISBN978-0-7020-3471-8. a drug can be defined as a chemical substance of known structure, other than a nutrient of an essential dietary ingredient, which, when administered to a living organism, produces a biological effect

NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Commissioner, O. (n.d.). The Drug Development Process. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Rietveld, T. (2007). Do general practitioners adhere to the guideline on infectious conjunctivitis?

Results of the Second Dutch National Survey of General Practice. BMC Family Practice, 8(1), 54–54.

Wenthur, B. (2013). Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: Fluoxetine (Prozac). ACS

Chemical Neuroscience, 5(1), 14–23.

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