Is therapy effective?
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According to a new large-scale review of therapy effectiveness research studies conducted by the American Psychological Association, the effectiveness of psychotherapy is very real. The impacts of psychotherapy are positive both on the psyche and on the body. In addition to easing emotional distress, psychotherapy helps reduce the need for physical health services and produces long-term physical as well as emotional health improvements.
Yet over the last decade the use of psychotherapy to treat people with mental and behavioral health issues has decreased. What has gone wrong?
Interestingly, during this same period the use of medications to address emotional problems has increased, according to government and insurance industry data.
“Every day, consumers are bombarded with ads that tout drugs as the answer to their problems. Our goal is to help consumers weigh those messages with research-based information about how psychotherapy can provide them with safe, effective and long-lasting improvements in their mental and physical health,” said Melba J. T. Vazquez, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association who led the psychotherapy effectiveness review project.
One speculation is that consumers need more information about therapy, how it works, and its effectiveness. While drugs for treating emotions are prevalent in the media, there is insufficient advertising or explanations of talk therapy in the media.
A second hypothesis is that many people in need still consider seeking help from a therapist as a sign of weakness or failure. Again, public education could be a helpful remedy. If people knew better they would do better in seeking help when they need it.
A third reality is that medical ads and a culture that endorses taking pills for quick relief of any discomfort have effectively convinced too many folks that taking a bill is all one needs to do to feel better emotionally. While medications often do help, the reality is that therapy helps people to feel better by empowering them to better handle the challenges in their life. The outcome then is both feeling better and doing better vis a vis their difficult situations.
As a result of their effectiveness review project, the APA’s Council of Representatives last week adopted a resolution on psychotherapy effectiveness. The resolution cites more than 50 peer-reviewed studies on psychotherapy and its effectiveness in treating a spectrum of health issues and with a variety of populations, including children, members of minority groups and the elderly.
The resolution reports the following findings, all reasons to cheer for psychotherapy and to make these services more broadly available.
1. Research demonstrates that psychotherapy is effective for a variety of mental and behavioral health issues and across a spectrum of population groups.
2. The average effects of psychotherapy are larger than the effects produced by medications for reducing negative emotional states like anxiety, anger, and depression.
3. Grouping together many studies to a analyze their overall findings, the large overview study found that psychotherapy reduces physical and emotional disability, death rates and psychiatric hospitalizations.
4. Psychotherapy also leads to improved functioning at work.
5: Psychotherapy teaches life skills that last far beyond the course of treatment. Individual psychotherapy can teach skills ways of thinking that reduce vulnerability to depression, anger, fears and anxiety. Couple therapy teaches skills for better communication, conflict resolution and anger management—skills that significantly improve the quality of marriages and prevent divorces. Family therapy teaches skills for becoming a better parent, in turn helping children to grow into happier and healthier adults.
6. The results of psychotherapy tend to last longer than drug treatments.
7. Unlike drug treatments, psychotherapy rarely produces harmful side effects such as the weight gain, lowered sex drive, emotional agitation, fuzzy-headedness or other potential side effects of psychological medications.
8. While medication is appropriate in some instances, research shows that in general the effects produced by psychotherapy are comparable or better than the effects produced by drug treatments for the same disorders.
“As Americans grapple with the ever-increasing cost of health care, it is important that consumers and those who make decisions about health care access understand the potential value in both improved outcomes and cost-saving of psychotherapies,” Vasquez said. “APA applauds and continues to support collaboration of psychologists with other health care providers as part of integrated health care teams. Psychotherapies are highly effective, but only when consumers have access to them.”
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical psychologist, specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism and marriage difficulties. Author of multiple books on therapy, parenting and marriage, Dr. Heitler's latest project is a website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that teaches the skills for marriage success.