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From Shrinks To Shamans, The Pitfalls Of Therapy Tourism

People who seek therapies to boost their health and outlook often experiment with a number of different methods, either simultaneously or in quick succession, hurting their chances for improvement.

No alternative?
No alternative?
Camille Destraz

GENEVA — Psychotherapy, meditation, energy massages, acupuncture. Alternative methods for improving health are seemingly endless and have only snowballed in the last two decades.

At the age of 33, Sébastien (not his real name) was determined to improve his health and mental outlook, and thereafter spent 21 years seeking relief from his "functional difficulties." He spent three years in psychotherapy, eight days "locked in a house in the Jura mountains with three therapists" undergoing the Hoffmann Process, and five weekends every year doing Zen meditation and voice work. There have also been energy massage sessions and a bizarre treatment in which a woman made him choose violins from a suitcase to deduce problems from his previous lives. He has even experimented with Shamanism using drums — "it was powerful" — and Gestalt therapy.

Looking back on these experiences, Sébastien is amazed. "I have discussed many things from different angles," he says. "Everything is complementary. But I haven't dived deep into anything except meditation."

The almighty patient

Sébastien is in good company, and therapeutic methods for our various modern maladies are endless. According to Dr. Nicolas Belleux, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Lausanne, this trend of therapeutic tourism first emerged in the late 1990s. "In previous generations, the doctor was respected and no one dared to contradict him," Belleux says. "And the shrink was avoided at all costs. This situation changed with the arrival of the Internet. The patient has had the opportunity to educate himself thanks to the accessibility of scientific articles. So there was a reversal of the relationship from the all-powerful doctor, to the almighty patient."

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Fit as a fiddle — Photo: Marnie Joyce

Meanwhile, the burnout epidemic arrived, pushing people to seek psychological treatment. There has also been an explosion of alternative medicine. "Patients began to seek the best solution for themselves," Belleux says.

Hope and confusion

What is the risk of this type of tourism? People tend not to complete the treatment. They scratch at the surface without digging deeper, then move on to some other therapy with hopes of a quick fix. It's even worse when patients visit several therapists at the same time and each offers different opinions and treatment methods, creating complete confusion.

"Some therapies can be complementary, but sometimes mixed treatments are destructive," Belleux says. "If I see my GP, my cardiologist, my reiki master, my masseuse and my fortune teller, it doesn't pose a problem. But if I go to an acupuncturist and two people who specialize in energy, this will create conflicts."

People who experiment with several methods at the same time should therefore inform their flock of therapists. Lucie didn't take this precaution in her efforts to increase her odds of getting pregnant. When doctors gave her only a 5% chance of conceiving, she tried several alternative methods, in addition to hormonal treatments. "I needed to see people who reinforced my hope," she explains.

She tried acupuncture, psychology sessions, energy massage. "I never even asked myself if it was good or not do everything at once, and they didn't ask me either," she says. "But I think that the combination of it all brought my baby to the world."

Belleux believes that those prone to being therapeutic tourists are people with trust issues, and those who have difficulty relinquishing control to a professional. "There may also be an element of revolt against the medical profession," he says. "They flee as soon as we begin to address the core issue. Generally, we find that when asking for the medical records of these people, they refuse and don't want us contacting former therapists. We feel that the monitoring is likely to be brief and that we are part of a long list of caregivers. But we always hope to help people to change this process and find their well-being."

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