Health & Science

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Patients May Be Quitting Too Soon

A University of Houston study tracked more than 100 cognitive behavioral therapy patients over a twelve-week course to treat anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of mental health problems — particularly anxiety and depression. 

A University of Houston study tracked more than 100 cognitive behavioral therapy patients over a twelve-week course to treat anxiety. About half those patients stopped showing up for counseling sessions before the end of the regimen.

“People who find the greatest improvement are also the ones who are most likely to quit,” says Partha Krishnamurthy, a marketing professor at the C.T. Bauer College of Business. Much of his research looks into why consumers quit buying goods and services.

For this study, he found a correlation between rapid relief of anxiety symptoms and a patient’s tendency not to complete a course of therapy. But relief of those symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from them.

“So it is possible that I could have a greater improvement in anxiety because I was so bad to begin with. And, yet, be at a higher level of anxiety compared to somebody else who was not nearly as bad to begin with and has gotten a small improvement,” Krishnamurthy said.

A Houston counselor who practices cognitive behavioral therapy says her decade of experience backs up what Krishnamurthy found. 

Amy Ammerman says anxiety and depression patients feel it not only in their minds, but also in their bodies.

“When you experience rapid recovery from that, it is definitely not surprising to me that (the clients) would just want to just go out and tackle the world. And an hour-long session once a week is not part of that new game plan,” Ammerman said.

Ammerman says completing an entire course of cognitive behavioral therapy — one with a clearly defined timeline and set of goals — is key.

“It’s so much easier to just stay in treatment a little bit longer than you maybe would have otherwise to really solidify the new skills you are learning and re-structure those neural pathways in your brain,” Ammerman said.

Both Ammerman and Krishnamurthy say cognitive therapy is similar to a round of antibiotics:  patients should finish what they started to get the best results.

They hope future research into mental health consumer behavior will lead to better tools for therapists to keep their clients from prematurely dropping out.

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