Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Monday, 5 May 2008 09:08 UK

Is an alternative just the tonic?

By Fiona Murray
BBC News

Northern Ireland is said to use more prescription drugs than any other UK region. While tablets may alleviate symptoms, they can be addictive and have side effects. A BBC NI documentary looks at the alternatives.

prescription drugs
Many prescription drugs have side affects

Londonderry woman Frances Gillen was addicted to prescription drugs for more than 20 years.

The legacy of the Troubles and raising five children by herself took its toll.

After being caught up in gunfire, she slid into depression and refused to leave home for years.

"It affected me... I stayed in the house for the guts of three years, or maybe more, without going out. The only place I would have gone to was to go over to the doctors," she said.

"It got that I would not even wash myself. I got the TV brought up into my room.

"I didn't want to commit suicide but I really didn't want to go on if this was life, if this was my life... the quicker the better, I could go."

However, her life was turned around when she tried homeopathy as part of a pilot scheme being run in two centres in Northern Ireland.

The Get Well Scheme allowed GPs to refer patients to complementary therapists, with the NHS paying for their treatment.

Frances Gillen
Frances Gillen suffered depression for years

Within weeks, Frances felt her depression lift and she started to resume normal life; she also came off all prescription medication.

"Now I feel like 16 again... well 30," she joked.

Her story and that of others who took part in the one-year scheme is told in a BBC documentary being shown on Monday night.

Get Well Northern Ireland looked at a group of people who attempted to leave prescriptions behind in favour of complementary therapies like acupuncture, homoeopathy, chiropractic, aromatherapy and reflexology.

The patients had a wide range of conditions including chronic pain and depression. The scheme aimed to see if alternative therapies could help them as well as saving the government money.

For many, the therapies were a life-changing experience.

Trained acupuncturist and former nurse Sue Evans said she saw people in Londonderry with "so much psychological trauma".

"Most of the patients I saw were on medication. There were very few that weren't on medication. It was quite astounding at times how they were still standing, the amount of pain relief they were taking," she said.

Programme producer Ronan McCloskey said: "Without a doubt the therapies featured in this programme help patients and make them feel better. But who should pay for them?

"I think anyone who watches Get Well Northern Ireland might feel that we should make them available through our health service, but we also need to manage them, so that the system doesn't become overloaded or abused."

Boo Armstrong
Boo Armstrong said people were taking notice of the scheme

Boo Armstrong, the director of London-based Get Well UK, which delivered the scheme in Northern Ireland, said the therapies can heal people and save the NHS money.

"People are paying taxes for the NHS," she said.

"People who have got money can afford to buy complementary medicine which often works, so they are paying twice for their health. People who haven't got the spare cash to pay twice, they get sick."

She said people all over the world were paying attention to the results of the scheme.

"This is government-level interest in integrated health care. It is really exciting," she said.

Northern Ireland's Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is now assessing the results of the scheme.

The patients

  • Michelle McConnell suffered from constant anxiety and panic attacks following the birth of her second child.

    A near-death experience in hospital destroyed her self-confidence and she was unable to leave home for months.

    Through the Get Well Scheme, Michelle was referred to acupuncture, and she began to feel better after just one session.

    Michelle McConnell
    Michelle McConnell had a near-death experience

  • Belfast pensioner Amy Patterson was left with crippling pains after a stroke five years ago and was dependent on many drugs.

    She said acupuncture gave her pain relief the drugs could never match. She was able to resume normal day-to-day activities such as going shopping.

    However, the end of the scheme has meant a return trip to the pillbox.

  • Also featured in the programme is former nurse Marie Vaughan. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she turned down chemotherapy in favour of alternative therapies.

    She now consumes high levels of vitamins and minerals and hopes they will stop her cancer returning.

    Get Well Northern Ireland is being shown on BBC One NI on Monday, 5 May 5 at 2100 BST.

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