What is supportive therapy?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people who are living with a mental illness or emotional difficulties may face challenges coping with daily stressors. It can be difficult to see the bigger picture and keep moving forward when your mental health is not in a good place, a therapist serves as a person that can help you to manage aspects of your own life and mental health. For this reason, many people benefit from the help of experienced, supportive mental health professionals to practice mental health techniques. 

This can be especially true for individuals who do not have a strong external emotional support system in place. Supportive therapy that is rooted in empathy, also called supportive psychotherapy, can be helpful. This type of therapy can be reached in person or online and does not require psychiatric hospitalization or in-patient care.

Getty/MoMo Productions
Get the support you deserve

When is supportive therapy helpful?

Not everyone has family members or friends whom they can turn to consistently when they are going through a difficult time, nor can our loved ones always help in the ways that we most need. This can make it especially hard to recover from bouts of depression or other types of emotional turmoil. Thankfully, supportive therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that is generally designed to help people heal and develop a positive therapeutic relationship while also supporting them. 

This therapy method can be particularly beneficial for those experiencing issues that have stretched their coping capacities, such as those with cancer, major depression or anxiety, personality disorders, those in unhealthy relationships, managing substance abuse, and more. Supportive therapy can offer practical tools, support, and encouragement to achieve one’s goals and increase a patient’s functional abilities. It can involve many different therapy techniques and support methods, but above all, it usually prioritizes creating a safe space where clients can express their emotions and explore their behaviors with a therapist in a fluid, conversational style. 

Supportive psychotherapy may be beneficial for people living with various mental health conditions but is generally recommended for personality disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and in treatment aiming to improve self-esteem. The practice of supportive cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy, and other modalities can offer clients a sense of being cared for by their therapist. 

What does supportive therapy involve?

Supportive therapy aims to help people navigate their problems with comfort, compassion, and empathy. Issues like strong emotional distress can make it difficult for individuals to manage their everyday lives. A supportive therapist can offer support and comfort, as well as practical knowledge and tools.

During supportive therapy sessions, a therapist will typically use specific techniques to listen to what a client has to say and offer some important advice on how to cope with the situation. This type of therapy is usually empathetic and designed to help the patient feel encouraged. The idea is generally to provide emotional support for those who are going through a tough time. In supportive therapy, a patient’s self-esteem is normally considered important, and self-esteem may improve as the individual begins feeling safer and more supported while working through challenges. 

Showing compassion for the client’s belief in therapy, their history, and their concerns can also be a supportive measure. Advice is frequently given compassionately. A supportive therapist will often reinforce accomplishments, and limit-setting will generally be gentle and appropriate, while holding space to help the client reduce defense mechanisms and other barriers to psychotherapy treatment.  

This type of therapy can give many patients the ability to express their reality and what is going on in their lives during a session with a mental health provider. Supportive therapy can provide an outlet where they can speak about their grievances, gain clarity, and come to terms with challenges through the gentle guidance of the therapist. A supportive therapist may sometimes simply listen to gain more insight into your circumstances and feelings about them, while other times, they may offer advice and insight.

The environment for therapy can be important. Supportive therapy should ideally be conducted in a calm, relaxing setting. Relaxation techniques may be utilized to help clients feel calm in therapy sessions. When the client sees therapy sessions, the therapy space, and the psychotherapy provided as safe and supportive, their thoughts and feelings often benefit.

In therapy, a supportive therapeutic alliance can be an especially important element. The therapeutic alliance is usually defined as the cooperative working interpersonal relationship between the client and therapist. Most types of psychotherapy rely on a positive therapeutic alliance with the therapist understanding the patient’s feelings and the patient feeling heard and understood. In fact, the American Psychiatric Press points out that a true therapeutic alliance can be vital, not just to supportive psychotherapy, but to all psychotherapy. In supportive therapy, the therapeutic alliance is considered one of two of the most important elements, the second being the conversational style. When a client feels a positive therapeutic alliance with the therapist, they may let go of some of their defense mechanisms so that they can work more honestly and openly to make progress. Supportive therapy techniques can be adapted to other types of clinical practice, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). 

Supportive therapies vs. insight therapies

Many therapists consider supportive therapy and insight therapy to be separate approaches. Supportive therapy is usually more about actively listening to what the client has to say and supporting them. Generally speaking, in traditional forms of behavior therapy, a therapist may be more inclined to interpret what a client says or experiences, try to correct certain behaviors, or attempt to guide a client toward healthier thoughts or behaviors. Some therapists may focus on identifying unconscious conflicts and challenges. However, this is not always the focus (or purpose) during supportive therapy sessions.

The idea behind supportive therapy is to give clients an outlet where they can express themselves and their frustrations, sorrows, joys, and hopes. The therapist typically listens and strives to understand clients’ feelings. Some individuals just need to have someone on their side to help them navigate life’s challenges, gain awareness, and move past their issues. Having a dedicated therapist who is willing to listen and be there can be enough to make a significant difference in a client’s life. That is why therapists who are practicing supportive therapy often think carefully before deciding to interject with advice of their own.

Insight therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy, on the other hand, is a treatment model that is usually more about advising the client. Sometimes, psychologists or psychiatrists may utilize insight therapy and supportive therapy in tandem. It is possible that a client may simply need to receive emotional support to help them get through a particular issue, in which case insight therapy may not be needed.

There can be many benefits to insight therapy. Therapists and clinical social workers may know how to guide patients down a more desirable, healthy, or sustainable path. The advice that a therapist can give clients may lead to them better managing their negative symptoms in everyday life. The therapist may take more direct measures to help the client develop adaptive skills, whereas less direct measures may be taken in supportive therapy.

Getty/AnnaStills

Helping patients manage symptoms

Individuals who are going through a tough time and need help temporarily may not necessarily fit the bill for a supportive therapist but can still benefit from one if desired. Regardless, one ultimate goal of supportive therapy is often to help individuals manage their symptoms. If the client is experiencing severe anxiety, then supportive therapists may interject to teach them methods to bring their symptoms under control. Likewise, those going through depression may benefit from certain coping strategies and mechanisms that a supportive therapist can introduce. 

Some therapists may suggest small or significant life changes to help the client move forward. Examples of big life changes can be alterations to the patient's diet and a recommendation to exercise more frequently. Even activities such as sports can be a great way to improve some clients’ moods, and it can give them something to look forward to. A therapist may also guide the individual toward doing things that could open up the possibility for them to bring new people into their lives, as connecting with others can have profound impacts on our well-being. Activities and behaviors that promote self-esteem are also frequently encouraged.

As a client feels safer, more confident, and supported in their capacity for change, they might benefit from concrete services like behavior rehearsal, graded exposure intervention, role-playing, learning problem-solving skills, building self-sufficiency, and developing adaptive capacities. These strategies can bring about positive changes in specific behaviors. People may learn to see themselves in a different light and approach their behaviors from a different angle. For instance, they may move from a pessimistic view of seeing “only problems” to an optimistic view of seeing positives and opportunities and feeling resilient and strong.

One of the reasons why people may seek out supportive therapy can be due to not having enough supportive or consistent people in their lives. For this reason, a patient may be encouraged to make new friends. Supportive therapy groups where a client feels comfortable may also be beneficial. A client may also be encouraged to try out new hobbies and do new things to have fun. Promoting positivity and happiness can be a very important part of supportive therapy. All of these can lead to improvements in the social life of the individuals, and this can aid in alleviating some of their problems.

Do I need support therapy?

Determining whether or not you need supportive therapy or another type of cognitive therapy can be fairly simple. If you are experiencing mental health issues that are negatively impacting your life, then you would likely benefit from therapy. Those who do not have others to rely on for emotional support or who cannot receive the kind of support that they need from loved ones may benefit from more support than usual from a therapist. In such instances, a supportive therapist may be the right choice for you. Many traditional therapy methods use a few supportive therapy techniques to help patients, as supportive therapy is often considered foundational to other therapies.

It is not unusual for a therapist to combine traditional therapy methods with supportive treatment techniques when a patient needs them. Typically, therapists will conduct an assessment of ego functions, such as reality testing, judgement, and others, that can give them deeper insights into the individual’s personality, coping styles, difficulties, and more. They can then use this information in combination with their knowledge and instincts to make informed decisions for the client’s betterment. If you and your therapist think you might benefit from a different type of therapy, they can refer you to another therapist who may better suit your needs.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Get the support you deserve

Consider contacting an online therapist

You can also consider contacting an online therapist. Online therapy can be a great option for many people to consider when looking for effective treatment and professional support. It can be more practical than most traditional therapy methods. Scheduling tends to be more flexible, sessions can be conducted anywhere you have an internet connection, and you can still enjoy high-quality therapy sessions. In addition, you may request to be connected with a therapist who practices supportive therapy if you feel you’d benefit from this therapeutic approach.

It can be possible to get help for many different types of problems when you seek out online therapy. Whether you are experiencing major depression, an anxiety disorder, grief, or trouble with your interpersonal relationships, you may benefit from speaking to an online therapist. Studies through a psychiatric press have shown that online cognitive behavioral therapy can be more effective for treating anxiety and depression than a doctor’s primary care.

Takeaway

Supportive therapy is generally defined as a form of psychotherapy that focuses on listening, support, empathy, and managing symptoms. This type of therapy can also involve practicing strategies and techniques to work through difficult times and emotions and may improve self-esteem. It tends to be different from other types of therapy in that it’s not usually as analytical or action-based, but often relies on offering support to an individual. Sometimes, support and empathy can go a long way to helping someone get through tough times. If you’re interested in supportive therapy, you may find a supportive therapist in person or online.
Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started