Everything You Need To Know About The Expected Length Of Therapy

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
When it comes to therapy, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Different people can benefit from different types of treatment, treatment goals, and duration of treatment. Therapy is a personal experience, so while it can be useful to consider expectations and guidance regarding the average length of therapy treatment, it may also be important to pay attention to your own experience and progress.

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Psychotherapy can be used to treat specific mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and OCD, for example. Therapy isn’t limited to individuals with diagnosed mental health conditions, though. It can also be used to work through emotional difficulties, relationship struggles, or major life changes. In this article, we’ll discuss the expected length of therapy, including factors that can affect treatment length.

The average length of a therapy session and treatment plan

According to the American Psychological Association, for many conditions and types of treatment, therapy sessions may last roughly 45 to 50 minutes, though the exact length can vary. The duration of your treatment plan may be left to the discretion of you and your care provider. Treatment plans may be short-term, lasting a few weeks to months, or long-term, lasting months to years.

A study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology indicates that patients find the most dramatic improvements somewhere between their seventh and tenth sessions. Still, not everyone will fall into this average, especially if they are experiencing more severe conditions or must work through deep-rooted personal issues. 

Factors that can affect treatment length

According to the American Psychological Association, several factors can impact how long you participate in therapy. Some of these may be at the discretion of your care provider, while others can be based on your personal preferences. 

Treatment type

The type of therapy you receive can have a significant impact on how many sessions you might participate in. Consider the following types of therapy: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most common types of treatment, can help people identify and change harmful or ineffective behavior patterns. It may last for six to twenty sessions, and each session can average 30-60 minutes in length. 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of talk therapy based on CBT but with a focus on controlling emotions. It can be used to treat people experiencing chronic suicidal thoughts or those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this treatment often lasts much longer than other types, usually requiring at least six months to a year.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is an approach that uses cognitive-behavioral exercises and mindfulness training, and it can be used for relapse prevention for individuals with depression as well as other mental health conditions. It may consist of eight sessions within a group program, each lasting about two hours long. 
  • Prolonged exposure therapy can help individuals confront fears and trauma-related feelings. The American Psychological Association recommends its use in treating PTSD. Prolonged exposure therapy can consist of roughly eight to 15 sessions over a period of about three months. These sessions often last longer than other types of therapy, ranging from 60-120 minutes in length. 
  • Interpersonal therapy is often used to treat specific types of depression. It can help people identify underlying interpersonal issues and then learn healthy ways to communicate and relate with themselves and others. It often involves a 12-to-16-week program
  • Emotionally focused therapy can be used to help couples create a more secure attachment in their relationship by shaping and expressing their emotions. It can be a short-term therapy that often lasts between eight and 20 sessions.  

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7.

Family therapy is a type of therapy in which family members come together to improve their communication skills and resolve conflict in pursuit of a more positive relationship. Multiple family members may attend sessions together, or one family member can see a family therapist individually. According to the Mayo Clinic, family therapy typically consists of an average of twelve sessions

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Severity of your condition

More than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. About one in twenty-five live with a serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. People experiencing a more severe condition may need consistent, ongoing support from a mental health professional.

Your mindset

One of the main goals of therapy is to see progress and improvement in your mental health. To achieve this goal, you may need to actively participate in your treatment. When you are willing to speak honestly and candidly with your therapist, they can provide more focused care, and you can find solutions that work for you.

If you feel unable to talk openly to your therapist, you may need to spend some time examining why. Sometimes, people may not feel a connection with their therapist. If that’s the case, you may benefit from finding a different mental health care provider. It can be important to choose a provider you feel comfortable with in order to experience the results you’re looking for. 

Your individual preferences

Different people may approach therapy differently. Some people may prefer a more preventative method that follows the wellness model of therapy. In this model, therapy might be akin to consistent exercise or healthy eating choices. It may be a way to consistently maintain your mental health so that you don’t get to a point where you feel overwhelmed by stress or the symptoms of a mental health condition. 

Other people may prefer to follow the illness model of therapy. In this model, therapy may be similar to a visit to your primary care provider. You might seek therapy in order to alleviate the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Once you’re feeling better, you may discontinue treatment. 

Like so many other factors that impact your treatment plan, there is no one right or wrong way to view therapy.  

When is long-term therapy the best solution?

While many people may benefit from a time-limited treatment plan, some conditions can require long periods of ongoing clinical therapy. Some of these conditions may include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Recurrent and severe major depressive disorder
  • Dissociative disorders

A therapist may suggest ongoing treatment if a patient is at risk of psychiatric hospitalization. Moreover, if you think you would benefit from ongoing therapy to work through complex issues, you can talk to your provider about your preferences. 

Finding the right type of therapy for you

There may be no one correct answer when it comes to how long you should participate in therapy. According to a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, setting uniform time limits for treatment would not adequately meet patient’s needs. Instead, you should work with your therapist to decide what length of treatment would work best for your individual situation. You may also need to make other decisions regarding your therapy options, including if you prefer in-person or online therapy. 

For many people, making the time for clinical psychology or therapy—regardless of the potential duration of treatment—can be challenging. With busy schedules, lots of responsibilities, and long commutes, seeking help in-person might be difficult. For these individuals, online therapy may present a more convenient option. Since you can attend a therapy session wherever you have an internet connection, there’s no need for a long commute. This may make it easier to schedule appointments and make time for treatment. 

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A growing body of research demonstrates the effectiveness of online therapy. In a 2017 review examining 373 articles, researchers concluded that online cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating and managing various conditions, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorders, OCD, and bipolar disorder. 

Takeaway

According to the American Psychological Association, the expected length of therapy can depend on several factors, including the type of therapy you receive, the severity of your condition, and your individual preferences. While some individuals may benefit from a few weeks or months of therapy, other people may need ongoing, long-term therapy. Ultimately, the decision of how long your therapy will last is up to you and your care provider. With BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist online and work together to determine the length of treatment that’s right for you. To get started, reach out to BetterHelp today.

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