Culturally we are doing a really good job of normalizing the use of therapy and medication, but I wonder sometimes if we underemphasize that therapy takes time and effort to work. It’s not unusual for people entering therapy for the first time to expect rapid results or that they can use therapy to recover with minimal participation in the process.
While there are treatments for various symptoms designed to bring relief quickly (usually a combination of medication and therapy), and therapies that can help individuals who aren’t completely bought into the idea of psychotherapy, those are the exceptions rather than the norm.
Quick-fix breakthroughs get glamorized in pop culture’s version of therapy, but in real life, change comes slowly.
How Long DOES it Take for Therapy to Work?
A huge study (source below) was conducted in 2001 of 10,000 people. It showed that about 20 sessions (that’s about six months of weekly sessions) were needed for 50% of people to experience notable symptom improvement. With a full year of treatment, that number jumped to 75%.
The numbers change depending on how researchers measure “improvement” and there are many studies that can be used to argue different timelines, but this massive study is the reference point I use in my work.
For many, noticeable relief in symptom intensity can some sooner- sometimes in the first few sessions- but when therapy doesn’t help as quickly as we’d like it’s important to set our sights on long term outcomes.
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The research study that inspired this art can be found on PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11393594 if you don’t have academic access to that resource, it can be downloaded directly via this link. The language is academic/technical, for a layperson outline and explanation of some of the issues with research that tests the “effectiveness” of various therapies for mental illness, see Jonathan Shedler’s article in Psychology Today.