Talk therapy isn't self-indulgent chatter or a placebo. It works, especially if the patient is in the hands of a skilled and compassionate therapist.
Studies show that people with personality disorders (a classification that covers many of the most common mental health problems) recover seven times faster with the help of therapy than they would without treatment.
When therapy works best
Therapy is particularly effective against anxiety disorders, social phobias, and posttraumatic stress disorder, though medication is critical for treating other mental health conditions, such as panic disorder and schizophrenia.
Research suggests that talk therapy even causes changes in brain function similar to those produced by medication.
Therapy with medication
Certain types of talk therapy, namely cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, are as effectivebut not more effectivethan medication for mild or moderate depressions. People with severe depression require medication as well.
"The ideal treatment in most cases is a combination of medication and therapy," says Kenneth Robbins, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Health.com adviser.
In one study of depressed patients taking medication, 70% of the patients who also received intensive interpersonal psychotherapy experienced a significant reduction in symptoms after five weeks, compared to just 51% of the patients who received only 20-minute support sessions.
Twelve months later nearly all of the patients who initially responded to therapy continued to have reduced symptoms, and the disparity between the two groups was even more dramatic. The researchers noted that interpersonal psychotherapy was "significantly more effective in increasing social functioning."
"Therapy is a gift"
Improvements in "social functioning" may be the dry argot therapists use to describe patient success. Those on the receiving end of treatment use very different language. Many report that a nonjudgmental therapist eases the loneliness of depression, or lights the way to deeper, closer relationships.
Many describe deep healing. "I was amazed at my transformation in therapy," says Terrie Williams, 53, of New York City, whose weekly psychotherapy sessions allowed her to feel "authentic" rather than "robotic" as she navigated a high-stress job in public relations.
While she was also prescribed Zoloft and Wellbutrin, Williams came to understand that her struggle was more than biochemical. "Therapy is a gift we should all have. We all have deep scars from childhood, which are compounded by everyday slights. [It helps] to have one hour a week to replenish yourself."