Home PageAbout Jim CarpenterMy PracticeClinical PsychologyPsychotherapyFrequently Asked Questions

Does Psychotherapy Work?

In a word, yes.

Psychotherapy works to increase and deepen self-understanding, change behavior for the better, and reduce suffering and all the other symptoms ascribed to psychiatric disorders.  Not everyone is helped, but most are significantly benefited, at as high or higher a rate as that provided by any other form of care.  There has been little doubt about this fact for a long time among the millions of persons who have engaged in psychotherapy.  However, it may now also be counted as a very well-established scientific fact.

The experience of many thousands persons in psychotherapy has now been carefully studied in well-controlled scientific studies. 

For some overviews of this research, see http://www.apa.org/practice/peff.html, and http://counsellingresource.com/types/effectiveness.html.  For a large study particularly addressing the point of view of the clients themselves, see the  discussion of the Consumer Reports study at http://horan.asu.edu/cpy702readings/seligman/seligman.html.

The findings that emerge from all of this research are very interesting.  They include:

  • The benefits of psychotherapy, as contrasted to no treatment or control treatments, are highly significant statistically and clinically
  • The benefits are at least as great as those shown to come from psychiatric medications, when the two have been compared.
  • Long-term therapy is more powerful than brief therapy, although the latter is effective also.
  • Therapy is as helpful for children as it is for adults.
  • Group therapy and family therapy are as powerful as individual therapy.
  • Therapy works as well for conditions that are more serious as it does for less serious conditions.  For example, benefits were as great for clients diagnosed with “clinical depression” as for those diagnosed as having milder depression.
  • The stability of benefits over time after the treatment has ended is quite high for most persons, and much higher than for treatment by medication alone.
  • The theoretical orientation of the psychotherapist is not very important in determining outcome.
  • However, there are characteristics of therapists as persons that are very important.  For example, the more effective ones are better able to establish good relationships, are warmer and more empathic, engage their clients with more energy and clarity, support reasonable risk-taking, and are more expert and well-trained.
  • The most important variables affecting the usefulness of therapy actually have to do with the client.  Remember the light-bulb joke? (How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?  One.  But the bulb has to want to change).  It helps to be suffering acutely, to be willing to explore inner experience, and to be willing and able to engage in interaction with others.