how long does therapy for depression take

How Long Does Therapy for Depression Take? 4 Experts React.

If you’re among the millions of Americans who suffer from depression, you may be considering therapy. Feeling down, heavy, and lacking interest in basic life isn’t how you want to live your life. But how long does therapy for depression take?

The last thing you want is to spend 1-2 hours every week for YEARS of your life in therapy. So, you want to know what you’re in for if you choose therapy for depression.

That’s why I asked 4 experts to help us understand – how long does therapy for depression take? What factors make it slower or faster? Is there anything an average therapy seeker should know?

depression therapy length

Severity of Depression and Duration of Therapy

I asked Dr. Jim Jackson, professor of medicine and psychiatry at Vanderbilt, about the effect of severity on treatment length.

“A simple ‘rule of thumb’ might be something like this – ‘the more severe a person’s depression is, the longer it will take to treat.’ While there is some truth in this ‘rule of thumb’ the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Factors like motivation and social support and the connection between a patient and a therapist can all contribute to more rapid improvement in symptoms and quicker relief.

“When I interact with patients, I find that they often understand that treatment will take some time but what they are really looking for while they wait for treatment to ‘take hold’ is hope – just a tiny spark of hope that things can eventually get better. This spark of hope, which makes all of the difference, can often emerge shortly after treatment starts – often in a few sessions – and it is often just the relief that people need as they embark on a healing journey.”

therapy treatment for depression

How Long Does Therapy for Depression Take Different People?

What about personal differences? Do they affect the time it takes to improve one’s depression?

“There are gigantic variations between individuals in how they respond to therapy for depression. This is reflected in paradoxes we often see – where some people with fairly severe depression improve very quickly and some people with mild symptoms take a long time to improve. This is why simple ‘cut and dry’ answers are hard to provide related to the rate of improvement (emphasis added).

“While these individual factors can sometimes extend the length of time that it takes to see results in therapy, I’m more often impressed by the fact that these factors can help accelerate a person’s progress.

“Many of these are within an individual’s control:

  • are you exercising?
  • are you spending time in nature?
  • are you practicing good sleep hygiene?
  • are you eating a diet that promotes mental health?
  • are you prioritizing spending time with supportive people?
  • are you taking your medications – if they’ve been prescribed – on schedule?
  • do you do the homework between sessions that a therapist might assign?

“Engaging in these sorts of activities and habits – in my clinical experience – can often help lead to positive outcomes and can help usher in the benefits of therapy for depression.”

time to fix depression

Types of Therapy for Depression

There are a lot of options when it comes to treating depression. But is one better than the rest? How do they differ? To answer this, I requested the help of Jessica Plonchak, Executive Clinical Director at ChoicePoint.

“Psychoanalysis… focuses on the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis can therefore take up to a month before one can start noticing a change. However, this duration is not set in stone, in some cases, it can be 6 weeks (about 1 and a half months) before a change can be seen. The client meets with their psychoanalyst frequently every week, from 5 to 6 times a week.

“On the other hand, in cognitive behavior therapy, the client is encouraged to focus on their thoughts and behaviors to get a deeper insight into recognizing incorrect thinking and behavioral responses. Cognitive behavioral therapy can last from 3 to 5 months, where the client seeks therapy every week. The treatment is subjective to each patient’s case.

“Then we have Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) which is essentially a sub-discipline of cognitive behavioral therapy. The primary difference between CBT and DBT is that in DBT you are encouraged to acknowledge and accept your negative behaviors and thoughts. This technique has been deemed effective in treating depression.

womens therapy for depression

“Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a neurobiological-based intervention that targets aspects of your life, including memories, traumatic events, beliefs, emotions, etc. It works with your body’s existing healing networks to help the nervous system recognize, resolve, and become unstuck from its emergency responses.

“Another effective technique is Interpersonal therapy (IPT). This depression treatment helps you focus on the interpersonal conflict you might be experiencing that’s resulting in your depression. A major goal of interpersonal therapy includes learning how to build a strong, reliable social support system, which can be incredibly beneficial when you’re dealing with depression.

“Lastly, Psychodynamic therapy is another treatment of depression that falls under psychological therapy. Psychodynamic therapy can work to treat depression that results from childhood trauma or conflict. Many times, these conflicts can even be unconscious. This approach helps you identify emotions that are difficult to acknowledge.”

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Life Circumstances Affect Depression, Too.

“In my opinion, external factors can gravely impact the duration of therapy. If the patient comes from an unstable and unsupportive family, the therapy is likely to take much longer since people with such backgrounds are very vulnerable and can fall back into toxic patterns easily.

“Other life stressors can directly impact the length of the therapy as well. If one loses their job during 

 treatment, they will most likely quit seeking therapy to cut down on expenses. The death of a loved one or other factors like divorce will directly increase the duration of the therapy as well.”

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Goals for Depression Therapy: Do They Matter?

Next, I received some great insights from Dr. Lincoln Stoller at Mind Strength Balance. He gave some raw and real feedback when I asked him about what he sees in his therapy clients. How do a client’s therapy goals affect their outcome?

“Introduced therapy goals are rarely the actual goals. They’re more like a calling card. In some cases, they are all a person wants to address, or they might be exactly what they don’t want to address. There is no way to tell beforehand whether the issue is shallow or deep (emphasis added).”

“If a client comes with an issue relating to a professional decision, then one might assume a limited number of issues need to be addressed. If they come with an issue that seems to be related to a dysfunction, like anger or unsustainable relationships, the real work that’s needed could be extensive.
“My approach is to broaden my client’s understanding and horizons. Wherever they start, I hope to take them to larger and more consequential goals. In that sense, the extent of our work is endless and the objectives will keep changing.”

Said in layman’s: It could be the case that depression therapy leads to deeper challenges, and can become a lifelong pursuit of ever-better mental health.

depression lgbtq

Real World Insights: How Long is Enough?

Now let’s get more specific. What can a new therapy-goer expect when seeking therapy for depression? How long will it really take? More from Dr. Stoller:

“Given a new client, it’s impossible to tell if one’s short-term success will be long-lasting. But, if their recoveries have been short-lived before, then the safest assumption might be that it will be again.

“However, there are many kinds of help and many kinds of therapists. Since most therapists are effective only with average clients, generalizations based on past experience may be incorrect. I have more experience and apply more tools than most therapists, I seem to be more effective, but I still cannot tell what my effect will be ahead of time (emphasis added).

Can’t Predict the Length of Depression Treatment

“Depression arises from intrinsic and extrinsic sources, and every case is a combination. Chronic depression tends to have an internal source, while acute depression involves an external trigger.

“The most rapid resolution comes from cases where the client can remove the external trigger. In a relationship context, the trigger is the other person in the relationship. If one person changes the relationship, then the depressive force is removed and the depression may be resolved.”

therapy for depression goals

Is there anything that might take longer to treat?

“The slowest progress comes when the depression is a symptom of repressed conflict. Here depression is more of a coping strategy or a consequence of the coping strategy that has been designed to avoid addressing the conflict. In these cases, the depression is almost a deception because the client is reluctant to explore its source. If the client chooses, they can ruminate endlessly, focusing on the situations they have created, and avoiding the deeper patterns that continue to create these situations.”

So, therapy for depression is wildly complex. There’s no one-size-fits-all. And no therapist can tell you how long it will take to ease your depression. As Dr. Stoller summarizes:

“A single metric for the duration of therapy cannot be meaningfully presented.”

how to fix depression therapy

Who Gets Better Faster?

What single factor, if any, leads to better outcomes from depression therapy? Jennifer Simmons responds:

“Self-love. Those who are able to come to believe that they are innately worthy of love have a higher likelihood of recovering from depression than those who are not able to believe this about themselves.”

More self-love can aid anyone, especially those struggling with depression and mental illnesses.

Final Words: How Long Therapy for Depression Can Take Depends

As you’ve just discovered, the amount of time it takes to treat depression depends on many things.

  • Severity of depression
  • Self-care and coping skills
  • Habits and Hygiene
  • The type of therapy you choose
  • Life circumstances and stressors
  • Whether you can develop self-love and inner worth

Even what you consider “treated” affects how long therapy for depression can take. Does “treated” mean fully positive and hopeful? Or does it mean you can function in a basic way? 

So the major takeaway, as with most things, is it depends. You just won’t know how long it’ll take until you get started with a licensed therapist.

If you’re a woman seeking online therapy for depression in Nevada or California, please take a look at my depression page and contact me for a free consultation.

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