While the lines may blur when it comes to defining mental health, “mental illness” is generally characterized as symptoms that interfere significantly with our daily functioning and quality of life, and possibly even threatening our lives. These symptoms include visual and auditory hallucinations common in schizophrenia, forgetfulness and confusion experienced in dementia, and suicidal thoughts that occur in severe depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, serious mental illness affects 5% of adults, with estimates suggesting only half receive treatment.

Mental Illness: A Look Back

Historically, mental illness was heavily stigmatized. One of the first documented diagnoses of mental illness in Western medicine was hysteria, attributed exclusively to women until the late 19th century. In surviving medical documents from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, “female hysteria” was attributed to poisoned uteri, lack of sexual activity, and, somewhat contradictorily, too much sexual activity. In much of medieval Europe, female hysteria was treated with exorcisms. If these exorcisms didn’t work, “hysterical” women were accused of witchcraft and executed1 Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, vol. 8, 2012, pp. 110-119. .

From the Middle Ages all the way through the Enlightenment, mental illness was also often attributed to a humoral imbalance. These imbalances were often treated by cutting open veins to induce bleeding, forcing patients to vomit, or administering laxatives in the hopes that these purging procedures would allow “bad humors” to exit the body.2 Shatkin, Jess P. “The History of Mental Health Treatment.” American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Presentation.

Mental Illness Today

Although mental health treatment has improved in leaps and bounds over the past several decades, the stigma of mental illness persists. Portrayals of people with serious mental illness – as seen in recent popular films like Split and Birdbox – are regularly distorted as evil monsters who seek to hurt, or even kill others. In reality, only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness, and those with severe mental illnesses are over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.3U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Mental Health Myths and Facts

There’s no shame in struggling with mental illness, and it’s important to know there’s help – plenty of it, in fact. We can all take comfort in knowing that caring, experienced, compassionate professionals exist to help when and if the need arises. For mental health maintenance, our modern wellness industry offers a plethora of options – from meditation to yoga to wellness coaching – to keeping us all sane, happy and healthy.

Mental Illness through the Lens of Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine takes a unique approach to treating mental health, focusing significant attention to the shen.

Shen is a Daoist concept that loosely translates to “spirit” or “soul” in English. Imbalances of shen can manifest in varying degrees of mental illness or unrest. And unlike Western medical diagnoses, there is always a physical manifestation of “shen disturbance” in Chinese medicine, both internally and externally.

Internal patterns of organ “disharmony” are assessed, as well as quality, quantity and movement of vital fluids, including the blood. This health information is ascertained through feeling the patient’s pulses and observing the tongue, with volumes of medical texts devoted to these two medical diagnostic arts alone. Additionally, the physician observes of the patient (including their shen), and discusses the patient’s health history including current symptoms. This complex intake, while fairly routine, tells a unique and individual story for every patient. “Patterns of disharmony” are determined, and a treatment method is prescribed based on correcting the imbalance.

There is a whole body of Chinese medicine dedicated to healing severe cases of shen disturbance. Acupuncturist Mary Elizabeth Wakefield draws from Sun Si Miao’s seminal text “Ode to Needling the 13 Ghost Points” to explain how she treats more serious psychospiritual manifestations. By targeting an acupuncture point called “Ghost Heart” in her treatments, Wakefield has been able to treat manic depression, manic raving, ceaseless laughter, and uncontrollable weeping, particularly in cases of opioid addiction.4Wakefield, Mary Elizabeth. “’Shen-ocide’: Treating the Psychospiritual Aspects of Opioid Addiction with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.” The Journal of Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018.

Renowned medical scholar, textbook author, and lecturer Giovani Maciocia asserts that serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are related to an “obstructed,” “misted,” or “clouded” shen. He continues, “We know that very many great artists suffered from bipolar disorder and it is clear in their case that it is the Mind that is clouded, not their Spirit, which soared to great heights.” Finally, he discusses the subtler, yet still observable indicators of good mental health as “flourishing,” “lustre,” or “glitter.” These qualities can be detected in the complexion, eyes, tongue, and pulse, and are a big part of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment.5Maciocia, Giovanni. “Shen and Hun: The Psyche in Chinese Medicine.” Giovanni Maciocia.

Hope for the Treatment of Mental Illness with Chinese Medicine

In addition to China’s rich history of treating mental illness, a great many recent studies have been conducted worldwide on the application of acupuncture and herbal medicine. The results are promising.

In a study published by The Journal of Brain Disease, the Chinese herbal formula Yi Gan San, a serotonin modulator, was shown to restore brain glutathione levels and thus contribute to the treatment of schizophrenia and neuropsychological disorders. In another study by Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, researchers showed “statistically significant improvement in tardive dyskinesia (involuntary movement of the face and jaw) and psychotic symptoms,” concluding the herbal formula was safe and useful for treating behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia and borderline personality disorder.

The Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine conducted a study that showed improvements in the symptoms of schizophrenia, side effects of medication, as well as energy, motivation, sleep, and other associated physical problems. The 10-week acupuncture intervention concluded that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia could benefit from acupuncture treatment alongside conventional treatment.

In a case study published in Acupuncture Medicine, acupuncture was beneficial as an add-on treatment for a patient with schizophrenia. The patient, a 63-year-old woman who suffered from persistent hallucinations and physical pain due to the hallucination of a black bird that kept pecking her back, received 12 weekly acupuncture treatments. A clinical diagnostic interview and psychological testing showed improved daily functioning, improved sleep, and significantly decreased pain. The hallucinations still occurred with acupuncture treatment, but the patient felt less disturbed by them.

Maintaining Good Mental Health

In a speech given at the Pacific Symposium, renowned Chinese medical scholar, author, and lecturer Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallee explains the role of the heart in traditional Chinese medicine, especially in the treatment of milder forms of mental illness:

The ‘art of the heart’ is to empty the heart everyday. To reduce what does not appear to be the natural expression of our lives… To take inspiration from the natural order experienced in the four seasons, and also in the wisdom of the past generations… To act in such a way that the inner disposition becomes more and more aligned with the natural order…

When the heart is able to take in all that is presented in openness, knowledge is able to become wisdom, the kind of wisdom which is nothing other than to know how to nourish life.6Rochat de la Vallee, Elizabeth. “Art of the Heart.” Pacific Symposium, 2002. Conference Presentation.

We can achieve the goal of “emptying the heart” through practicing daily gratitude or meditation. Making a sustained effort towards mindfulness and gratitude can go a long way in calming many of the anxieties that plague those of us with busy, hectic lives. 


Whether mental illness is caused by substance abuse, trauma, extreme stress or family history, Chinese medicine offers safe and effective adjunctive therapy in its treatment and management. Good mental health is essential to our overall health and wellbeing, and Chinese medicine is unique in that it treats these illnesses of the mind by treating the patient as a whole, human being.