Therapy For Depression: Does It Work?

Kristin Hall

Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Published 10/31/2022

Updated 05/23/2021

If you’ve been feeling low lately and find yourself Googling “therapist for depression near me,” you’re certainly not alone.

An estimated 17 million U.S. adults experience one or more major depressive episodes in a one-year period — and possibly more within this past year, given increased isolation and other factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While depression can be downright debilitating at times — triggering deep sadness, feelings of hopelessness, a lack of interest or motivation, and even physical symptoms from fatigue to impotence — the stats are encouraging and suggest most people can find relief. 

Around 80 percent to 90 percent of people with depression respond well to some type of treatment, whether it be psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication, or a combo of both, according to the American Psychiatric Association. This makes it one of the most treatable mood disorders.

Therapy, in particular, is an extremely low-risk, potentially high-reward treatment option. And while the prospect of finding a therapist may seem daunting (especially when you’re feeling crappy), online therapy resources make it more accessible than ever before. 

Whether you've been dealing with depression long-term, or you’ve just been diagnosed (the median age of onset is actually 32.5 years old), there’s reason to believe that therapy can lift your mood.

Below, we’ve explored what therapy for depression entails, how effective it may be and the most common types of therapy for depression. 

Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) refers to talking through any and all mental and emotional struggles you’re having with a licensed mental health therapist. 

Therapy provides a space to identify factors that contribute to your depression and develop healthy strategies to deal with them. 

Sometimes it’s used as a stand-alone treatment for depression, but it may be used in conjunction with medication for more severe depression.  

During a session, your therapist may work with you to do the following:

  • Identify distorted thought processes that make you feel hopeless, helpless or insecure.

  • Hone in on past and current life events that contribute to depression and find ways to accept, understand or change them.

  • Understand why certain things bother you.

  • Develop actionable coping skills for depression symptoms and managing stress.

  • Notice early signs that your depression might be getting worse. 

  • Set realistic goals for the future.

  • Improve relationships with family and friends.

  • Learn how to talk to other people about your depression.

Each appointment is basically a problem-solving session in which you’re invited to talk about your life and the challenges you’re facing, and whether there are goals you’d like to achieve. 

Your therapist then helps you address these issues so you can live a happier, more fulfilling life. 

Once you start therapy for depression, you won’t necessarily be in it forever. How frequently you engage simply depends on your situation. 

Some people see a therapist weekly or bi-weekly for several months or longer, then scale back to periodic check-ins — sort of like little mental health tune-ups.

Most mental health professionals would agree that therapy is a powerful tool for treating depression. But how effective is it, really

While results will vary depending on the specific type of therapy used, how well you click with your therapist (it’s not always a match!), and how committed you are to self-improvement, here’s some encouraging data if you need a little motivation: 

Therapy Helps Most People Who Try It

About 75 percent of people who try psychotherapy experience some benefit, and the average person who participates in therapy is better off by the end of treatment than 80 percent of people who don’t receive treatment, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Some experts believe that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — one of the most well-supported types of therapy for depression — may provide a viable alternative to antidepressant medications, even for some people with severe depression. 

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Virtual Therapy Works, Too

While more research is needed on the benefits of online-based therapy, the data so far is promising. 

In one small study, people participating in an eight-week online therapy session for depression based on CBT principles experienced equal benefits to those engaging in face-to-face therapy.

In fact, continued symptom reduction three months after the treatment was only observed in the online group, which would indicate virtual therapy may be more efficacious in the long term. 

In another study, online therapy patients were surveyed about their experience and nearly all of them were satisfied with their sessions and felt comfortable presenting the same information to their therapist virtually as in person.

It Bolsters The Benefits of Antidepressants

No one says you need to do therapy and therapy alone — but if you do take drugs for depression such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), therapy can be a great complementary treatment.

Research, including a meta-analysis of 115 studies, suggests that combining cognitive behavioral therapy with antidepressant medication is significantly more effective for treating depression than just medication. 

Therapy Triggers Positive Changes In The Brain

Several studies have shown that various types of psychotherapy (e.g. CBT, interpersonal therapy, psychodynamic therapy) positively alter brain function in people with major depression. 

Often, these brain changes are similar to changes that occur while taking antidepressants, such as increased activity in a brain region called the hippocampus.

This is encouraging, since studies show that the hippocampus (and some other areas of the brain) can actually shrink during depressive episodes. 

Results May Be Felt Within Weeks

When you’re depressed, relief can’t come soon enough. And while everyone’s results are different depending on their initial needs and goals, people in therapy generally begin to feel better within six to 12 sessions.

Therapy Helps Prevent Depression Relapse

Therapy isn’t just an in-the-moment fix. It can help you develop the skills and tools to notice and address worsening depression symptoms before they’re out of control, and this may help you avoid a serious relapse. 

Research suggests that CBT has a long-lasting effect that can protect against depression relapse, even after the end of active therapy treatment. However, the same is not true for antidepressant medication alone.

When you start Googling, you’ll see many types of therapy out there, but don’t stress too much about selecting just the right one for your depression. 

The truth is, a variety of approaches are effective — and often, therapists combine elements from several styles of psychotherapy, tailoring treatment to someone’s specific needs. 

But familiarizing yourself with a few respected approaches can be helpful when finding a good therapist or online therapy tool. 

According to the APA, two of the most common evidence-based therapies for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). Here’s a quick rundown:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and how they may influence depression and overall mental health. According to the APA, CBT is based on these core principles:

  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.

  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.

  • People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

During CBT sessions, patients work with a therapist to identify these negative or distorted thoughts, inaccurate beliefs and harmful behavior patterns that are contributing to their depression. 

Sometimes, therapists give patients homework — like a journaling exercise — to help identify these thoughts, beliefs and behaviors in “real life;” not just during a session. 

Then, therapists and patients come up with healthier ways to cope and move forward, whether that’s with positive self-talk, reframing situations, role playing different scenarios and behaviors or learning ways to calm and center the mind and body.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

Interpersonal therapy is based on the idea that depression can be related to conflicts within our relationships and poor social support. 

It’s a short-term form of treatment (usually lasting 12 to 16 weeks) with the goal of improving social functioning and relationships with your partner, friends, family and coworkers to help resolve symptoms of depression. 

People undergoing IPT therapy will learn how to better express their emotions, improve the way they communicate and relate to others, solve interpersonal problems in healthier ways and increase their level of social support so they can better cope with depressive symptoms.

Of course, there’s more than just these two types of therapy for treating depressive disorders

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Therapy, whether it’s online or in-person, is a highly effective treatment for depression if you give it enough time and are committed to the process. 

And if you take medication for depression already, layering on therapy may increase your odds of finding relief. 

Just keep in mind, therapy alone won’t cut it for everyone — treatment of depression may take a bit of trial and error. 

Sometimes it requires a multi-pronged approach involving therapy, antidepressant medication, managing your other health conditions and making targeted lifestyle changes, from getting enough physical activity to prioritizing good sleep and nutrition.

Bottom line: therapy is a powerful tool for depression, but it’s not your only tool — and that should feel empowering! 

18 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Kristin Hall, FNP

Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership. 

She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH

Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare. 

Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.

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