Psychotherapy Works!

Chances are good either you or someone you know has participated in psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, you and a trained mental health professional work together to help you reduce distress, feel better and work toward achieving your personal goals.

But how well does psychotherapy work? I still run into folks who question whether psychotherapy is really effective or not. They question how “talk therapy” can help bring about any positive benefits, and many people still have only the classic image of the patient lying on the couch with the detached therapist listening in silence.

I recently ran across the “Resolution on the Recognition of Psychotherapy Effectiveness,” written and endorsed by the American Psychological Association. It summarizes decades of top-quality research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy. After reading it, I was reminded that not only is psychotherapy very effective, it has a number of far-reaching benefits.

From this resolution, let’s recap 10 important things you need to know about psychotherapy and its effectiveness:

1) Goals of psychotherapy

Psychotherapy has a wide range of goals, including but not limited to providing symptom relief, promoting personality change, reducing future symptom episodes, enhancing quality of life, promoting better functioning in work, school and relationships, and increasing the likelihood of making healthy life choices.

2) Overall effectiveness of psychotherapy

The general or average effects of psychotherapy are widely accepted to be significant and large. These large effects are seen across most mental health conditions. Differences in individual outcomes are more heavily influenced by characteristics of the patient such as how chronic, complex, and intense their difficulties are, and by therapist differences and situational factors.

3) Effectiveness of different types of psychotherapies

Most valid and structured types of psychotherapy, including individual, group, couple and family formats, are roughly equivalent in effectiveness. Patient and therapist characteristics, which are not usually captured by a patient’s diagnosis or by the therapist’s use of a specific psychotherapy, can affect the results of psychotherapy.

4) Effectiveness of psychotherapy for different age groups

A variety of psychotherapies are effective with children, adolescents, adults, and older adults. Generally, studies show large beneficial effects for psychotherapy in reducing symptoms and improving functioning across all age groups. Older adults respond well to psychotherapy and can benefit to a degree comparable with younger adults. Many older adults prefer psychotherapy to antidepressant medications, particularly if they are on multiple medications for management of chronic health conditions and are more prone to the adverse effects of psychiatric medications than younger adults.

5) Effectiveness of psychotherapy versus medication

The positive effects of psychotherapy are similar to or sometimes exceed the effectiveness of many pharmacological (medication) treatments for the same conditions. The effects of psychotherapy tend to last longer and are less likely to require additional treatment than medications. Additionally, some of the medications have many adverse side-effects and are relatively expensive compared to the cost of psychotherapy. Many people prefer psychotherapy to medications because of negative experiences with medication side-effects. Often, both psychotherapy and medication are used at the same time to treat various mental health conditions.

6) Effectiveness after psychotherapy is over

Psychotherapy participants often report the benefits of treatment not only endure, but continue to improve following completion of therapy. Multiple research studies have confirmed this effect at various follow-up periods after therapy is over.

7) Cost effectiveness of psychotherapy

Many large research studies have shown that psychotherapy reduces overall use of medical services and medical costs. One study showed that patients who received treatment for a mental health disorder had their overall medical costs reduced by 17% compared to a 12.3% increase in medical costs for those with no treatment. When behavioral health services are successfully integrated into primary care, studies have demonstrated a 20-30 percent reduction in overall medical costs above the cost of the behavioral care. Psychological treatment of individuals with chronic disease in small group sessions resulted in medical care cost savings of $10 for every $1 spent.

8) Psychotherapy effectiveness in treating disabilities

Research shows psychotherapy is an effective treatment for individuals of all ages with disabilities. The studies indicate psychotherapy is effective for a variety of disability conditions including cognitive, intellectual, physical, visual, auditory, and psychological impairments. Psychotherapy is also beneficial in improving mood and reducing depression among individuals with acute and chronic health conditions such as arthritis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

9) Effectiveness of psychotherapy with underserved populations

Psychotherapy is generally effective with racial/ethnic minorities, people of low socioeconomic status, those living in poverty, members of the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) community and other socially-excluded groups and underserved populations.

10) Other benefits of psychotherapy

Psychotherapy reduces disability, improves work functioning, decreases use of psychiatric hospitalization, and at times also leads to reduction in the unnecessary use of medical and surgical services.

To sum up, psychotherapy is clearly effective and highly cost-effective. With evidence from several decades of high quality research studies, psychotherapy results in benefits that markedly exceed those experienced by individuals who need mental health services but do not receive psychotherapy. We need to continue to educate the public about the effectiveness of psychotherapy, promote the use of psychotherapy in the health care system, and advocate for policies to help increase access to psychotherapy, particularly with underserved populations.

Here’s a question: What has been your experience with psychotherapy? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!


  • Lynn Warner

    Excellent summary David!

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