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Mental Health

by Jennifer M. Williams, L.Ac

Counseling Studies

Much like my interest in Chinese culture, my interest in Psychology stems from childhood experiences and observation. In Chinese medical practice, I was confronted with a variety of patients manifesting serious psychological challenges. I could treat them on a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) level, but I was uncertain how to approach the counseling aspect of a mother bereaving a lost child, a soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, manic depression, addiction, et cetera.

I decided to complete a Ph.D. program in Counseling Studies. I believed that this would teach me the theoretical foundation to enhance my TCM assessment and treatment approach. What I learned is that TCM theory can help counselors in their assessment and treatment approach. TCM has a holistic grasp on psyche and soma while Western medicine is just starting to develop those theories. Western medicine continually develops theories because they have so many gaps in their complex and divided systems.

Unlike separate Western psychological theories, TCM theories mesh together in a brilliant way, resulting in a complete system of correspondence. Contemporary Psychology recently started touting the benefits of combining Western theory for a more individualized approach to treat behavioral conditions. Western science now accepts the understanding that mental illness may play a role in physical conditions and vice versa. All TCM theories combine mind and body for both diagnosis and treatment. Few Western theories combine psyche and soma for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment. But Western medicine did not start out this way.

Coming Full Circle

Many believe that Western and Eastern medicine are two completely separate paradigms. Eastern medicine dates back to at least 2200 BC. Eastern medical theories are rooted in Chinese philosophy. Classical Chinese philosophy includes the concept of yin and yang – a non-static cycle of oppositions and balance applied to nature and human health, and of five-element theory centered on the process of water, fire, earth, and metal, and wind. Connected to the five-elements are their associated viscera and bodily fluids. Connected to each viscera, are the associated temperaments.

Western medicine is a system of corresponding theories that date back to at least 500 BC. These systems are rooted in Greek philosophy. Early Greek philosophy includes Pythagoras’ concept of balances and opposites in matters of health, around 530 BC, and Anaximander’s development of the four elements – water, earth, air, and fire around 560 BC. Hippocrates developed the idea of the four humours, around 430 BC, that link health to the balance of bodily fluids and illness to an excess or deficiency. The humours are linked to Aristotle’s theory of the four associated temperaments.

An elusive proponent of the prominent Chinese medical text: The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine (compiled first century BC), is believed to be Hippocrates. This may explain “significant cognitive and epistemic similarities with certain esoteric health beliefs of pre-Christian Europe” (Kavoussi, 2007). Aristotle’s views on human good and virtue mirror that of Confucius’ respective to cultural assumptions, conceptual frameworks, and philosophical perspectives. These views helped shape Aristotle’s theory of self-actualization.


Aristotle’s concept of self-actualization includes the biological tendency of a species with the goal of developing to one’s full potential. Jung reintroduced the concept of self-actualization with less emphasis on the biological aspect. Jung’s focus on the psyche catapulted the development of modern psychology and helped shape Maslow’s expansion on the theory of self-actualization. Maslow further enhanced the theory by defining a hierarchy of needs that is an integral part of the theory today.

Maslow proposed his theory of human motivation, based on a hierarchy of needs in 1943. Self-actualization is a human individual potential that is presented as more psychological than biological since the higher hierarchy needs of love, esteem, and self-actualization have been severed from the body. In TCM however, each of the paired viscera have psyche and emotional processes that be studied and applied from basic theoretical level to the most complex Multi-Axial System Diagnosis outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

more to follow…


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