Does Mental Health Counseling Offer Proven Long-Term Benefits?

There is something afoot in the mental health counseling spere. After decades of acceptance in the medical arena, some are beginning to openly wonder whether or not mental health counseling offers proven long-term benefits. If it does, we continue supporting and developing it. If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to put it to rest.

A 2017 report published by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) cited several studies indicating that mental health counseling, while helpful in the short term, does very little to change long-term behaviors. To be clear, the report focused on diagnosed mental health issues like anxiety and depression. It was not referring to things like marriage counseling or relationship therapy.

Such a distinction cannot be ignored when discussing something of this nature. If a couple seeks out marriage counseling at Westchester County’s Relationships & More for example, the couple isn’t necessarily dealing with a mental health issue. The counseling they receive may very well result in long-term changes that save their marriage.

One of Several Therapies

Speaking strictly about diagnosed mental health issues, the ACSH report explained that mental health counseling is one of several therapies widely employed by licensed therapists. Two others are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy.

Psychologist Carl Ransom Rogers originally developed mental health counseling. He introduced it in the 1940s, developing it from his humanistic approach to psychology. Rogers’ main thrust was a focus on helping patients understand how they viewed themselves at the current time and in the current moment. His approach differed from more traditional approaches in that less emphasis was placed on the therapist’s understanding of the issue at hand.

CBT is also part of the humanistic therapy dynamic. However, it is a therapy that invites more influence from the therapist. In a CBT scenario, patient and therapist work together to accomplish a series of established goals designed to help patients understand and take ownership of their behaviors. The ownership aspect is that which sets CBT apart from mental health counseling.

Short-Term Benefits

A 2003 clinical trial review cited in the ACSH report seems to indicate that mental health counseling does offer modest benefits in the short term. People being treated with counseling demonstrate improvements compared to other treatments, including CBT and medication. But in the long term – which the study defines as 7 to 36 months – no improvements are observed.

The study’s results make sense when you consider human nature. Mental health counseling is largely a talking therapy. When people willingly sit down and talk about their problems, they are more likely to feel better about themselves and their situations. It is why we all vent when we are feeling angry or frustrated. Just talking about things gets them off our chest and relieves the stress.

Unfortunately, long-term solutions remain fleeting if a person’s behavior doesn’t change. Therein lies the rub with mental health counseling, at least according to the ACSH report. Mental health counseling does not offer any behavioral changes to people suffering from mental illness. And because counselors cannot write prescriptions or provide medical treatments, there is little they can do but facilitate the patient’s discussion of his or her own thoughts and feelings. This is not a long-term solution.

Time to Reconsider

Is it time to reconsider the long-term benefits of mental health counseling? There are some in the counseling community who believe it is. They may be in the minority, but perhaps not for long. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mental health counseling is ineffective as a long-term treatment for diagnosed mental health problems like anxiety and depression.