Please note that all of this information is sampled from the American Psychological Association website. For more answers and links to studies on the types of psychotherapy and their effectiveness, please visit the full website.

What is psychotherapy?

In psychotherapy, psychologists help people of all ages live happier, healthier and more productive lives. Psychologists apply research-based techniques to help people develop more effective habits. There are several approaches to psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal and psychodynamic, among others, that help people work through their problems. Psychotherapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a psychologist. A psychologist provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who is objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. Most therapy focuses on individuals, although psychotherapists also work with couples, families and groups.

When should you consider contacting a psychologist?

Some people seek psychotherapy because they have felt depressed, anxious or angry for a long time. Others may want help for a chronic illness that is interfering with their emotional or physical well-being. Still others may have short-term problems they need help navigating. They may be going through a divorce, facing an empty nest, feeling overwhelmed by a new job or grieving a family member’s death, for example.

Signs that you could benefit from therapy include:

  • You feel an overwhelming, prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness.
  • Your problems don’t seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends.
  • You find it difficult to concentrate on work assignments or to carry out other everyday activities.
  • You worry excessively, expect the worst or are constantly on edge.
  • Your actions, such as drinking too much alcohol, using drugs or being aggressive, are harming you or others.

Why choose a psychologist, compared to other types of mental health providers?

Psychologists who specialize in psychotherapy and other forms of psychological treatment are highly trained professionals with expertise in mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment, and behavior change.

After graduating from a four-year undergraduate college or university, psychologists spend an average of seven years in graduate education and training to earn a doctoral degree. That degree may be a PhD, PsyD or EdD.

As part of their professional training, psychologists must complete a supervised clinical internship in a hospital or organized health setting. In most states, they must also have an additional year of post-doctoral supervised experience before they can practice independently in any health care arena. It is this combination of doctoral-level training and clinical internship that distinguishes psychologists from many other mental health care providers.

Psychologists pass a national examination and must be licensed by the state or jurisdiction in which they practice. Licensure laws are intended to protect the public by limiting licensure to those who are qualified to practice psychology as defined by state law. Most states also require psychologists to stay up-to-date by earning several hours of continuing education credits annually.

How long will psychotherapy take?

How long psychotherapy takes depends on several factors: the type of problem or disorder, the patient’s characteristics and history, the patient’s goals, what’s going on in the patient’s life outside psychotherapy and how fast the patient is able to make progress.

Some people feel relief after only a single session of psychotherapy. Meeting with a psychologist can give a new perspective, help them see situations differently and offer relief from pain. Most people find some benefit after a few sessions, especially if they’re working on a single, well-defined problem and didn’t wait too long before seeking help.

Other people and situations take longer — maybe a year or two — to benefit from psychotherapy. They may have experienced serious traumas, have multiple problems or just be unclear about what’s making them unhappy. It’s important to stick with psychotherapy long enough to give it a chance to work.

People with serious mental illness or other significant life changes may need ongoing psychotherapy. Regular sessions can provide the support they need to maintain their day-to-day functioning.

Others continue psychotherapy even after they solve the problems that brought them there initially. That’s because they continue to experience new insights, improved well-being and better functioning.

How do I know when I’m ready to stop?

Psychotherapy is not a lifetime commitment.

In one classic study, half of psychotherapy patients improved after eight sessions. And 75 percent improved after six months.

You and your psychologist will decide together when you are ready to end psychotherapy. One day, you’ll realize you’re no longer going to bed and waking up worrying about the problem that brought you to psychotherapy. Or you will get positive feedback from others. For a child who was having trouble in school, a teacher might report that the child is no longer disruptive and is making progress both academically and socially. Together you and your psychologist will assess whether you’ve achieved the goals you established at the beginning of the process.