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Therapy for Mental Health: What Type Is Right for You, How to Find a Therapist, How to Afford It, and More

Therapy for Mental Health: What Type Is Right for You, How to Find a Therapist, How to Afford It, and More

Whether you’re struggling with a diagnosed mental illness, everyday life stressors, relationship problems, or another mental or emotional health concern, deciding to start therapy can be a major step in prioritizing your mental health and well-being.

If you’re thinking about signing up for therapy, you’re not alone. Nineteen percent of adults receive mental health treatment, with nearly 10 percent receiving counseling or therapy, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But deciding what type of therapy you want, finding a provider, and paying for it can all be major obstacles to getting good care. Let’s walk through what you need to know.

What Is Therapy for Mental Health?

Therapy is a general term for mental health treatment that consists of talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health provider.

“Fundamentally, therapy is about understanding your thinking, mood, emotions, and behaviors and where they cause you distress or impair your functioning. It’s about improving how a person interacts with the world so they can respond to life’s challenges with healthy coping skills,” says Lynn Bufka, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association (APA), where she works on healthcare policy issues and improving mental health care delivery.

According to the APA definition, therapy for mental and emotional health is a confidential, supportive space that allows you to talk openly with a mental health practitioner who is objective, neutral, and nonjudgmental. While most therapy focuses on individuals, it can also involve working with couples, families, or groups.

What Are the Different Types of Mental Health Therapy?

Mental health practitioners apply a large number of evidence-based therapies and techniques they’re trained in to help their patients. Some are more effective than others in treating specific disorders and conditions, and in most cases, therapists will use a combination of techniques.

Some common research-backed approaches you’ll come across may include:

  • Supportive psychotherapy This is one of the most common types of talk therapy clinicians employ. It aims to relieve emotional distress and symptoms by emphasizing reassurance, reeducation, advice, and encouragement of desirable behavior, according to the APA’s definition. It often combines some of the following therapeutic strategies.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) CBT is a common type of talk therapy that focuses on helping you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a healthier way, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Its premise is to understand how our thoughts are connected to our emotions and how our emotions are connected to our behaviors. The idea of CBT is to understand our thought patterns and detach our thoughts from our behaviors and actions,” says Christine Crawford, MD, MPH, an adult and child psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, who is also the associate medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Often, therapists will give their clients homework between sessions to practice behaviors or new ways of thinking about whatever they are struggling with.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy In psychodynamic therapy, therapist and client talk about negative patterns of behavior and feelings that are rooted in past experiences with the goal of resolving them. Through deep exploration of their past and present lives, the client will learn (with the help of their therapist) to analyze their unconscious emotions and motivations and how they shape their thoughts and actions, according to Mental Health America. Your therapist is helping you understand how your subconscious thoughts are affecting your conscious thoughts and behaviors, Dr. Crawford says. “You’re piecing together how past experiences influence your life today.”
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) DBT is heavily based on CBT with a few distinctions. CBT emphasizes understanding the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviors, while DBT emphasizes managing uncomfortable or distressing thoughts and feelings. It also has more of an emphasis on behavioral change, or working on skills to improve negative behavior patterns. It’s currently used to help people with various mental illnesses, and often those with borderline personality disorder as a primary diagnosis, according to NAMI. “It’s really helpful for individuals who when faced with a major stressor may experience intense emotions and who can have thoughts of self-harm,” Crawford says. In this approach, patients see therapists regularly. Homework between sessions is usually part of therapy.
  • Exposure therapy Exposure therapy is another subset of CBT that’s most frequently used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disordersocial anxiety disorderPTSD, and phobias, such as fear of leaving the home or fear of flying. During treatment, patients work with a therapist to identify their triggers and learn techniques to overcome their fears via gradual exposure to them in a controlled environment. Exposure could consist of imagining the feared stimuli, virtual reality simulations, or directly facing fears in real life, according to the APA. “Your therapist will work with you to expose you to the things that bring on the most anxiety to you, so you become desensitized with repeated exposure to it,” Crawford says.
  • Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) MBT helps patients prioritize their present thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with the aim of being mindful, open, curious, accepting, and compassionate. A review published in 2021 found MBT can be effective in helping people with depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, addiction, and psychosis. “It’s about helping a client stay focused and aware of their feelings, and narrowing down their emotions,” says Liz Morrison, LCSW, a New York City–based psychotherapist and the owner of Liz Morrison Therapy. In one MBT exercise she uses, she asks a patient to put a raisin in their mouth to slow down and focus on the “nitty gritty details” like the texture, the taste, what it reminds them of, and any other sensations they experience.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) EMDR is used to treat PTSD, with research suggesting it can significantly reduce the emotional distress stemming from traumatic memories, according to NAMI. In this case, EMDR replaces negative emotional reactions to difficult memories with less-charged reactions and beliefs. During this therapy, patients stimulate the brain with back-and-forth eye movements while recalling traumatic events.
  • Family or couples therapy Family therapy is a type of counseling that can help family members improve communication and resolve conflicts. It’s often short-term, provided by a psychologist, clinical social worker, or licensed therapist; the provider is often credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Through this therapy, families learn skills to deepen connections, get through stressful times, and improve troubled relationships between partners, parents and children, or siblings. It can include multiple family members, or just those who are willing to participate.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression. During a session, an electromagnetic coil is placed against your scalp or near your forehead to deliver a magnetic pulse that stimulates nerve cells in the region of the brain involved in mood control. It’s typically used when other depression treatments haven’t been effective.

Does Therapy Work? Here’s What the Science Says

Research suggests talk therapy for mental and emotional health can help in a big way.

In an analysis of 270 studies that considered whether psychotherapy was effective for people with depression, researchers found that it was indeed effective and in some cases more so than other types of treatment.
 Another large meta-analysis of psychodynamic therapy showed that over the long-term, this type of talk therapy helped patients with depression as well as social anxiety and social phobias.
Research shows that therapy can help people with anxiety, panic disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders. One review concluded that therapy has residual effects, fostering inner strength and encouraging patients to live “richer, freer, and more fulfilling lives.”
Other research has found that for people who are grieving a major loss of someone who had been close to them, therapy sessions helped reduce the likelihood of a subsequent mental health condition.
Some people with mental illnesses (such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, or psychotic disorders) will need medications to help treat their condition, and going to therapy simultaneously may lead to the best outcomes, Crawford says. Research has found that for patients with depression, for example, therapy and medication helps more than medication alone.

Therapy can help people with their emotional and mental health (whether they have a clinical diagnosis or not) because it addresses ways of thinking, past traumas, and habits they want to change, Bufka says. It’s through therapy that patients learn healthy coping strategies and feel empowered to take control of their lives — but it requires active participation and some work at learning new skills.

It’s worth noting that research suggests the relationship between patient and psychologist matters. Patients will get the most out of therapy in an atmosphere of strong connection, relatability, and collaboration, according to a meta-analysis of 295 studies and more than 30,000 patients.
 This means, ideally, your therapist should understand your long-term goals for your mental health, and you should feel comfortable talking with your provider about how you’ll tackle your problems together.

How Do I Know I Need Therapy?

For starters, therapy is used to treat mental health problems, including:
  • Anxiety disorders, such as PTSD, OCD, phobias, or panic disorder
  • Mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Addiction, alcohol use disorder, other substance use disorders, and gambling disorder
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia or other disorders that cause detachment from reality

But you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to seek out therapy (and seeking out therapy doesn’t mean you have an illness or a disorder), says Lynn Linde, EdD, the chief knowledge officer at the American Counseling Association.

“Some people go into therapy not because they have a diagnosed disorder, but because they want to make changes in their life, and they want to do that with the assistance of a mental health professional,” Dr. Linde explains. A person may seek help because they want to communicate better, improve their relationships, become more self-aware, overcome a fear, or pursue some other avenue of personal growth.

“Therapy is for everybody, and counselors work with people all along the continuum of emotional difficulty,” Linde says.

She says she thinks the pandemic has removed some hesitancies and negative stigma about professional mental health treatment for many people. People stopped, in many cases, seeing therapy as a sign of weakness; instead people recognized that our day-to-day lives are emotionally challenging, and that taking steps to learn how to cope better keeps you well and makes you stronger. “I hope that continues,” she says. “When someone seeks therapy, they’re doing something positive for themselves and we shouldn’t look at it like there’s something wrong with them.”

Apart from mental illness, some other reasons to seek therapy include:
  • Chronic illness, death, or bereavement in the family
  • Financial issues, job loss, or problems in the workplace
  • Relationship stress, including trying to make a marriage work, caring for young children or aging parents, and managing friendships
  • Daily stressors that are overwhelming you or throwing your life out of balance
  • Recovering from physical or sexual abuse or witnessing violence or a traumatic event
  • Cope with sexual problems, whether they’re due to a physical or psychological cause
Anyone who pursues therapy may find they:
  • Feel stronger in the face of challenges
  • Change behaviors that are holding them back
  • Look at ways of thinking that affect how they feel or behave
  • Heal pain from the past
  • Build relationship skills
  • Figure out goals
  • Strengthen their self-confidence
  • Better handle strong emotions like fear, grief, or anger
  • Enhance their problem-solving skills

Therapy can be helpful for anyone who is feeling like they are struggling to cope with life’s stressors on their own, Linde says. Therapy can be an appropriate first step if emotional worries or struggles are interfering significantly (and in an ongoing way) with day-to-day routines and tasks, like work, school, or household responsibilities.

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that if you encounter any of these symptoms for at least two weeks, it’s time to seek therapy for your mental health.
  • Feeling down, even if you are still able to keep up with work, school, or housework
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite changes that result in unwanted weight changes
  • Inability to perform usual daily functions and responsibilities
  • Thoughts of death or self-harm
  • Social withdrawal and disengagement from family members


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