“How long should I stay in therapy?” is one of the most common questions I hear from clients. Well…. There isn’t any one right answer. But I can give you a few things to think about if you’re asking this question for yourself.
What is Short-Term and Long-Term in Therapy?
First of all, let’s identify what I mean when I write “short-term” and “long-term” throughout this article. There isn’t even one right way to define this! But I typically think of short-term as less than 4 months. That might mean 4 months of weekly sessions, or maybe just a few sessions. My way of describing short-term is different from what some therapists and insurance companies consider to be “brief therapy,” which is often 6 sessions. On the other hand, long-term is simply anything longer than that. I consider both 6 months and 3 years of consistent sessions “long-term.”
So now, here are a few questions to think about!
- Why are you seeing a therapist?
People work with therapists for countless different reasons, and some of those reasons warrant more long-term care than others.
Generally speaking, if you’re working with a therapist for a specific situation, your time in therapy may be more short-term. A few examples are career counseling, getting over a breakup, specific interpersonal conflicts, and adjusting after a cross-country move. Another reason why therapy could be more short-term is simply wanting to build self-awareness.
If you are dealing with a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, or Bipolar Disorder, you may want to work with a therapist for a little longer. Many of these mental health concerns affect multiple areas of life, so it simply takes longer to work through each of those. Even so, many clients who see a therapist long-term don’t go to therapy every single week for years on end. It’s very common to go to therapy for 6 months here, take a break, 3 months there, take another break, etc. That is totally okay!
- How are you paying for therapy?
I hate that this is a factor, but it’s reality. Your therapy experience may be limited by an EAP or insurance company dictating how many sessions you get, regardless of why you’re seeing a therapist. If you think that you may want to see a therapist more long-term, but also know that paying for it after those few sessions will be difficult, you could ask about sliding scale options, or see if your therapist can accept HSA/FSA funds.
- What are your goals for therapy?
I set goals with each and every client right at the beginning of our work together. I don’t believe that therapy needs to be a forever kind of thing. Rather, I believe that my role as a therapist is to help my clients not need me anymore! That doesn’t mean they’ll never have another depressive episode, or flashback, or anything difficult happen to them. None of us can predict that. It DOES mean that I want to support my clients to build up coping skills, resilience, healing, and supports so that they can handle some of those things independently.
Setting goals helps you and your therapist stay focused and have something positive to work toward. When your therapy goals are met, it’s probably time to stop seeing a therapist, at least for now. And that’s a good thing!
- Is therapy still helpful for you?
This one is a little harder to talk about, but it’s really important. Sometimes, your progress with a particular therapist runs its course, and it’s no longer effective. That could be because the therapist isn’t right for you, or circumstances changed, or you simply got all that you could out of it. It doesn't mean that you weren't doing good work, or that you failed, or that your therapist wasn't good. All of these situations are really common and natural. If you’re feeling that, bring it up with your therapist!
Like I said at the beginning, how long you should stay in therapy is a very individualized and personal question. It’s always a good idea to talk about this with your therapist and make a plan that meets your needs. And remember, this plan should always be flexible. Life happens, things change, and your needs in therapy will likely change over time too. It’s a great idea for this conversation to be ongoing, and to be open and honest with your therapist as things change.