Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Alternative Psychotherapy

(Excerpts from an article of the same name from the book “Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy” under the editing by Boris Karvasarsky, Chief Psychotherapist of the RF Ministry of Health, the V. M. Bekhterev Institute, 2nd edition, 2002,

Alternative psychotherapy is one of the fields of so-called alternative medicine. The primary distinction of the latter is the use of “treatment concepts” by alternative healers (hereinafter, simply “healers” - Ed.) which are substantially different from those which have been adopted by scientific medicine.

Homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and the activity of healers and psychics, etc. are most often regarded as alternative medicine.

Relations between doctors and healers are usually antagonistic and the activity of the latter has been declared to be outside the law in a number of countries. In many respects the number of visits to healers depends in different degree on a society’s level of development and its health system. The crisis which our country is undergoing, a sharp decline in the quality of medical services against the background of an increase in the magical mood of society, has led to an explosion of healing which has reached previously unknown dimensions. The reasons for visits to healers vary. Two principal reasons are most often pointed out: the lack of favorable results from a doctor’s treatment, and the failure to establish a relationship between patient and doctor and dissatisfaction with these relations.


1) tend not to subject their methods to research in scientific medicine, do not participate in the work of professional medical societies, and do not publish their studies in specialized journals1;

2) the standard explanations are given in the event of negative results (a negative attitude toward the method on the part of patients or other persons present at the visit, the features of the biofield of the healer or the patient, etc.)

3) the healers themselves or the patients judge the results of treatment; there is no assessment by an independent expert of the effectiveness of the method which is accepted in modern psychotherapy;

4) no history of the illness is taken and usually there are no notes of the meetings between the healer and his patients where the nature of their discussion, the dynamics of the illness, etc. could be noted;

5) the healer is most often a lone practitioner; as a rule, he has no apprentices;

6) publicity by the mass media, the Party and administrators2, and the creative “elite” is characteristic of healers’ activity;

7) usually is insufficiently scientifically trained in his field, even if he is a doctor, and therefore often the notion of “charlatan” applies to him. With rare exceptions, highly-qualified specialists from scientific medicine do not transfer to healer positions.

There are certain differences between the activity of a doctor of scientific medicine and a healer.

1) The healer is more oriented toward the patient and devotes more attention to his anxieties, emotions, and needs;

2) He more often gives the patient satisfactory explanations of the nature of the illness, the prognosis, and the treatment;

3) A relationship of equals more often develops between him and the patient;

4) A high level of acceptance of the patient by the healer is noted, and the patient senses this;

5) The healer forms in the patient a strong belief in the results of the treatment;

6) He regards the performance of his therapy and evidence of its effectiveness with great enthusiasm, taking the reasons of the patient himself for the treatment into account;

7) the healer himself often approaches the patient’s model of an ideal doctor.

In a number of cases of healing the characteristics of patients who turn to healers for help are of interest for an understanding of the effectiveness:

1) the patient accepts the healer with enthusiasm and faith in the fulfillment of his expectations which are to a large degree facilitated by the advertisement;

2) he pays for the treatment and therefore regards it more seriously and devotes it greater attention;

3) he usually turns to the healer after he has not received favorable results from traditional treatment;

4) inasmuch as the visit to the healer itself is often interpreted as deviant3 conduct this leads to an excessive faith by the patient in the system of alternative medicine and the healer himself. This can have a rather pronounced aggressive nature.

Thus, alternative medicine often reveals shortcomings of scientific medicine, which does not completely consider (and often simply ignores) the role of psychosocial factors in the origin and treatment of an illness. In satisfying [the patient’s] emotional needs and in the influence directed at a greater degree at the patient, the healer takes on psychological value for the patient.

The role of suggestion amplified by mutual induction4, imitation, and faith in an unknown method formed without the mass media ought to be pointed out when speaking of the positive therapeutic effect which is observed in some patients under the influence of alternative techniques.

By alternative influence we are talking about a symptomatic5 psychotherapeutic effect, usually short-term and diminishing.

Extensive medical practice and specialized research attest to the possible negative consequences of healing. A delay in diagnosis associated with the time lost in treatment with a healer is most frequently indicated, which is especially detrimental to patients with oncological or progressive neuropsychiatric and somatic6 pathologies. In many cases the absence of the timely initiation of treatment dictates that his prognosis is unfavorable.

In much research there are reports that people have declared that they are psychic. V. V. Ivanov studied the psychopathological aspects of the psychic ability of 67 such people. He found psychopathology in five of them, personality pathology in 25, and pronounced accentuations7 of character in 37. In the course of examining psychics (35 men and 32 women from ages 20 to 55) Yu. N. Gavrilyuk identified three basic patterns in the character of the grandiose notions of psychics. T. V. Shurenko also reports that psychics are quite diverse in clinical psychopathological aspects. Their attitudes toward their abilities differ and are modulated by the manifest psychopathology or by personality features.

The “alternative explosion” in Russia is not accompanied by government, medical, and health measures proportional to the danger as one might expect. Moreover, the point of view has become significantly widespread that similar phenomena have been observed in the history of various countries during crises and which spontaneously disappeared when they ended. There is also another point of view. Modern Western society has in the main been able to satisfy some important human needs, in food, clothing, etc. This cannot be said of one of the most important human needs, the meaning of life. And until it is satisfied, people will retain a need for the irrational, for miracles.

It also appears that one of the possible reasons for the proliferation of alternative medicine is the increasingly perceptible gulf between the advances in a number of scientific fields and the relatively more modest successes of medical science and practice. It is hard for modern man to resign himself to this and it seems that “leaps” toward new knowledge are also possible in medicine and that one has only to remove the “impediments” in this path created by orthodox science.

The uniqueness of alternative medicine in Russia is that it becoming a part of parapsychology to an ever greater degree, including the transmission of graphic and mental content to some distance, moving objects without directly touching them, sensing the influence of light on the skin, and determining the condition of the internal organs of a person by bringing hands toward his body.

Supporters of these fields combine a rejection of the difficult and lengthy route toward knowledge in favor of a momentary, instantaneous “understanding” of the outside world with the aid of inspiration, revelation, insight, etc. In this route the need disappears for professional training and a search for scientific information with the aid of ever more modern techniques inasmuch as the establishment of “parapsychological contact” is completely sufficient for knowledge of the various phenomena of nature and the human organism.

The well-known stubbornness of alternative ideas in the public consciousness is also explained by a decline of interest in and respect toward science and genuine scientific knowledge in our country, which is seized with multifold crises of faith.


Notes by the editor of the website:

1 To put it more precisely, specialized medical journals simply cannot publish such studies for the reason that they lack any features of a scientific nature.

2 Support of healers by the Party and the administrative elite mainly occurred in the “pre-perestroika” period. Now the sympathies of this sector are directed toward the Church, but the latter is opposed to healing (for reasons of self interest).

3 A departure from the usual.

4 Stimulation both of the patient by the healer and of the healer by the patient.

5 That is, the result of the influence not on the cause, but only on a sign of the illness.

6 Corporeal.

7 Features.

Translated by Gary Goldberg