Is Psychotherapy Effective?

Psychotherapeutic session therapist with thoughtful patient
How Effective is Psychotherapy?

The short answer is that psychotherapy is very effective for people that seek treatment for emotional problems and actively participate in the therapy process. The long answer if of course more difficult and contentious for two reasons: the technical difficulty of quantifying changes in mental state in a rigorous way, and the entrenched interests in the treatment field: professional psychotherapists with their livelihoods to protect vs. multi-billion dollar drug companies with their bottom lines to protect. Almost everyone who conducts a study on the effectiveness of mental health treatments has an ax to grind.

Consumer Reports did a reader survey asking “if at any time over the past three years you experienced stress or other emotional problems for which you sought help from any of the following: friends, relatives, or a member of the clergy; a mental health professional like a psychologist or a psychiatrist; your family doctor; or a support group.” They also did a supplementary survey on psychotherapy and drugs. It is hard to envision a more unbiased organization than Consumer Reports (CR) with respect to these questions — they have no stake in the outcome other than as an informational resource for their readers.

The results were analyzed by outside consultant Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and also published by Consumer Reports in November 1995.

Conclusions of CR Psychotherapy Effectiveness Survey

  • Patients benefited a great deal from psychotherapy
  • Long-term treatment was much better than short-term treatment
  • Psychotherapy alone was as effective as medication plus psychotherapy
  • Psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers were equally effective therapists, and marriage counselors were somewhat less effective

Psychotherapy Effectiveness Outcomes

  • 87% of those feeling very poor at therapy outset felt very good, good, or so-so at the time of survey (426 respondents)
  • 92% of those feeling fairly poor at therapy outset felt very good, good, or so-so at the time of survey (786 respondents)

These outcomes are phenomenal, but bear in mind the potential differences between the Consumer Reports readership and the general population: engaged consumers who research their purchasing decisions. The survey results also reveal that psychotherapy was most effective for people who actively participated in their treatment.

A followup CR survey in 2003 looked specifically at talk therapy vs drugs. It found anxiety and depression treatment outcomes were best when patients actively participated in their therapy.

Active patients did one or more of the following:

  • Researched their problem in advance of seeking help.
  • Interviewed more than one professional.
  • Asked therapists whether they had experience treating that problem.
  • Brought a family member or friend to an office visit.
  • Kept a written record of their treatment and emotional state.
  • Applied what they were learning in treatment to their daily lives.

The best predictor of a good outcome was the last: working hard at therapy and putting suggestions into action.

If you are stressed or having emotional problems, or are anxious or depressed, psychotherapy can help. If you are unsure if what you are feeling might be helped by psychotherapy, please read our article on When to Consider Psychotherapy. Remember that actively participating in your psychotherapy increases the success of treatment.

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