The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy: What the Research Tells Us

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At least one in four Americans struggle with a major mental health disorder. And virtually every adult in the United States has a family member or friend with a mental disorder – be it depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorder, ADHD, or another.

The good news is 3,000 scientific studies and 300 summaries of studies underscore the consistent and positive effects of psychotherapy. Psychological therapies are effective across all ages, ranging from children to adults to older adults, and across settings ranging from independent practices to community centers to day hospitals. Psychotherapy clearly works with different people in many different settings.

The average client receiving psychotherapy is better off than 79% of clients who do not seek treatment. By comparing the effects of psychotherapy with the effects of medication, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, Harvard University psychologist, convincingly demonstrated that the typical effects of psychotherapy often exceed the degree of effect found in biomedical breakthroughs. Simply put, psychotherapy is quite effective.

Popular belief holds that antidepressant medications are plainly the most powerful treatment for depression. But, in fact, there is no stronger medicine for depression than psychotherapy. Scientific evidence shows that psychotherapy is generally as effective or more effective than medications in treating depression, especially when consumer satisfaction and long-term follow-up are considered. Research shows that psychotherapy for depression is at least as effective as antidepressant medications during the treatment period and more effective in preventing a return of the symptoms after the treatment is stopped. This is not to devalue the positive impact of antidepressants; rather, it is to underscore the reliable strength of psychotherapy.

Now, there is more information about how a given treatment works. Did you know that both psychotherapy and antidepressant medications rely on client and relationship factors to achieve many of their benefits– such as hope, confidence, and the relationship between the client and the psychologist? This may not be so hard to believe when it comes to psychotherapy, but it is also true for antidepressant medications. Most medication studies compare outcomes of medications to placebos (such as sugar pills). Based on this, we know that at least 75% of the reduction in depressive symptoms when taking an antidepressant is not due to the active ingredients in the medication but rather is based on the client doing something actively and having confidence in the helpfulness of the treatment and in the professional doing the prescribing. This means that it’s not just the medication, but rather the person taking the medication and the relational context in which it is prescribed that is critical.

Studies also consistently find that most people prefer psychotherapy over taking medications. What’s more, using a preferred treatment (regardless of the particular treatment) also seems to produce better results.

In summary, the scientific research supports the value of psychotherapy, even brief therapy, as an effective treatment for common mental health problems. Effective psychotherapy translates into happier and healthier people.

Dr. Westra

Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto