What is Mental Health Herbalism?

teaBy Jon Keyes

Mental health herbalism is the practice of working with herbs and other plants to improve well being, develop keener insight into patterns of imbalance and to reduce emotional distress.  As a licensed professional counselor and herbalist, I often incorporate the use of herbs for helping people to get stronger and feel better.  I have seen herbs improve mental health and I have also seen herbs bring profound insights that help a person work through emotional knots.  Plants not only work on a physical level, they are able to transform people emotionally and spiritually as well.

Many of us are aware that certain herbs can help with certain mental health symptoms.  People talk about St. John’s Wort for depression or valerian for insomnia.  In my approach to mental health, I think about working with herbs a little differently.   Instead of just taking an herb or a formula for a condition, my hope is to encourage a shift in how we think about herbs in general.  When I think of herbs, I am not thinking strictly of the herbs you would find in a health food store, but all plants in general.

The food we eat everyday is generally made up of plants, or come from animals that eat plants.  The framing of our houses are made of wood from trees.  We care for plants in our home and in our gardens.  We walk in parks and forests and encounter plants everywhere we go- even if we just see weeds coming up through the sidewalk.  Plants not only offer medicine; they offer the oxygen we need to breathe, the homes we live in and the food we eat everyday.  On a deep level, the plant kingdom provides the basis for our survival and for our growth and wellbeing.

When working with herbs for mental health, it is important to keep that in mind and see all plants as potentially healing.  We tend to think of herbalism as the process of ingesting an herb to receive healing.  In essence we often think of herbs much like we think of drugs- as a medicine to take to get a result.  We often take herbs with little thought for what they look, smell and feel like.

Instead, my hope is to help people to shift their conception of what it means to “take herbs”.  Instead of simply seeing them as another substance to take to feel better, I like to think of herbs as potential healing allies.  That means the process of getting to know an herb takes on a much deeper level of importance.  Growing herbs that you take, gathering them in the wild, sifting your hands through dried herbs, smelling their aroma in a garden or in a tea, seeing the beauty of plants and trees in nature, honoring what they have to give by giving thanks are all ways of developing a friendship with a plant.  Through that process of developing a “friendship”, there is a greater potential for transformation and loosening the blockages that contribute to dis-ease.

Whether you are experiencing depression, insomnia, anxiety, confusion or extreme mental states, that alliance with specific plants becomes the foundation for the healing journey.  Those friendships will help bring you home.  In essence, the process of   connecting with herbs and incorporating them in your daily life becomes more important than the specific result an herb will produce chemically in the body.  The process is more important than the result.

In modern society, we are very results oriented.  We want pain to go away.  We want fatigue to disappear.   We want illness and suffering to be alleviated.  Now.  We are willing to take enormous amounts of analgesic, stimulant and allopathic drugs to stop symptoms and get a result- today.  And though drugs are often very powerful and deliver almost instant results, we are left with increasing repercussions of walking that path.  All drugs inevitably have side effects.  That is especially the case with psychiatric drugs.

A tranquilizing benzodiazapene such as ativan or xanax will do a hell of a job in immediately calming a person.  Man, pop one of those and it feels like you just drank a few beers.  All the panic and anxiety melt away.  But the drug wears off and soon all those edgy uncomfortable feelings come back.  Well, just take another one.  Soon the body becomes habituated to the drug.  Worse-needs it.  And after a while if you don’t take it your body rebels, starts to feel extremely uncomfortable and then nightmarishly distressed.


The drug has rearranged the body’s neurochemistry to depend on a drug to target GABA receptors and induce a calmative effect.  Without the drug, the nervous system goes into shock.  It can no longer naturally produce the calmative agents that will help relax the body naturally.  In essence, the body is stuck dependent on those drugs for coping, and without them, life becomes truly unbearable.

Our desire for results, now please, has led to a society dependent on pills for managing emotional distress.  Right now, 20 percent of Americans take psychiatric drugs for their mental health.  Prior to the 60’s the idea of taking a daily drug for mental health was almost unheard of.  But we have become a culture obsessed with speed, efficiency and results.  Psychiatric drugs fit well into a culture that doesn’t have time to slow down and see what’s wrong, to take the time to make changes, to dig in deep and listen to our troubled hearts.

Herbs offer a very different way of approaching distress.  They are made of numerous constituents that have a much more complex effect on the body.  Except for a few specific cases, they tend to act much more gently than drugs and don’t often produce strong overpowering effects. And again, except for a few herbs, they tend to have few side effects and can be easily stopped if they don’t feel good.  And at the core, they are generally nutritive.  They are filled with vitamins, minerals and specific constituents that strengthen and improve health and well being.  This is a very different approach from a drug based approach to mental health.  While psychiatric drugs tend to cause a quick shift in consciousness by altering neurological pathways, herbs tend to nourish the body to help it to naturally strengthen the body’s inherent ability to manage stress and trauma.

Deep nourishment with herbal therapy is a slow process.  When someone is feeling deeply depressed and anxious, there are usually a number of reasons.  We live in a world that is increasingly stressful.  That stress impacts our ability to cope and can lead to increased emotional distress.  Poor family and work relationships, unhealthy diet, poor sleep habits, overwork, poverty and poor living conditions all impact emotional health.  Underlying trauma from childhood or from abuse in one’s life can deeply impact a person’s ability to be happy and thrive.  Working through these issues and making lifestyle changes take time and conscious effort.  There is no shortcut to emotional wellbeing.

Herbs are a powerful adjunct to this path to greater wellness.  They not only nourish core strength, they also offer a way of looking at life that is deeper, slower and essentially more healthy.  Sit under the tall branches of a cedar.  Grow rosemary in a window sill planter.  Take in the scent and beauty of a lavender plant.  Sip a warm cup of linden tea.  Take a bath with drops of rose oil.  Light a small stick of sage.  These are all ways of remembering how to move more slowly, more beautifully, more in relationship and harmony.  By slowing down, we can also take time to reflect on where we may be out of balance, what may need to change.  We are no longer suppressing.  We are engaging, forging relationships with plants and with our own hearts.  Listening more closely.  Finding out what has gone wrong and how we can repair and walk a good road again.

jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.



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