Many people who are curious about counseling and therapy want to know, «How long does counseling take? How long until a person solves his or her problems?»
Unfortunately, there is no exact answer for that. Counseling is part art and part science, and every person who comes to counseling session is very different, and has a very unique set of circumstances and personal attributes. The reply to that question is the very frustrating answer, «It depends.»
There are, however, some clues as to how long counseling will last. Let’s take a look at time-limited counseling, long-term counseling, intermittent counseling, and the «other factor» that influences how long counseling takes. We’ll discuss the positives and negatives of each.
Very often, a counselor a client (or group of clients, like a family), will agree to meet for a specific number of sessions. Because clients frequently come to counseling to learn a specific skill or get past a specific issue, continued meetings are not necessary once the clients have reached their goal. Most often, time-limited counseling is set at 10 to 20 sessions, with sessions occurring once a week. So, 10 sessions would usually be completed in about three months, and 20 sessions would be completed in about six months.
Time-limited counseling is an effective use of counseling for specific problems, such as:
Couples therapy and family therapy. Families usually come for counseling when communication has broken down, or when two (or more) members of the family can’t get along, or when a specific family problem is making family life unbearable. The interventions that family therapists often use consist of skill-building exercises, where family members learn new ways of interacting, and communication exercises, where family members learn to express themselves in respectful and effective ways. Once those skills are learned and adopted by the families, continued sessions are unnecessary.
Incident-related problems. Sometimes a client will contact a therapist because s/he is experiencing an event that is emotionally difficult. It may be due to the death of a loved one, an extremely stressful occurrence related to assault or sexual aggression, or an anxiety attack. The counselor make set up a certain number of sessions to teach the client techniques that help the client deal with the incident. For instance, if the client is suffering from anxiety attacks for the first time in his life, a counselor may teach breathing methods, cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, or meditation exercises. Or, if the patient has lost a loved one, a counselor may help the client through the stages of grief. Many clients come to therapy to discuss incident-related problems, and once they develop a relationship with the therapist, continue to schedule sessions and end up coming for long-term counseling (see below).
Duration of Long-Term Counseling
The sad truth is that many people have suffered difficult childhood experiences, and those experiences continue to affect them to the present day. As adults, they may have difficulty forming long-term relationships; they may have developed self-harming coping mechanisms, and turn to drugs or alcohol to help them deal with their problems; or they may engage in dangerous sexual behaviors or have compulsions that affect their ability to lead satisfying and safe lives. Those issues tend to take more than 10 to 20 sessions to address, and people with more serious issues are good candidates for long-term counseling (which can take place from six months to a year, but can continue for many years—as long as the patient wants or feels that the sessions are beneficial).
In time-limited counseling, the focus of meetings is usually on building skills. With long-term counseling, the focus of sessions is usually about discovering the persistent issues that affect the client, and learning how to come to peace with those issues. Long-term counseling affords the client time to gain insights into their problems, and allows the therapist to «take a step back» and let clients come to conclusions about the best decisions and actions they can take to better their lives.
Long-term counseling is often a part of group work, where group members support each other through many years. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon (a group for people who are strongly affected by someone else’s drinking) are often long-term groups, and people attend sessions for many years. They are, of course, free to discontinue attending at any time, but they enjoy and are helped by the relationships they form in group.
It should be noted that the issues discussed in long-term therapy need not be incredibly serious. Many people who seek long-term counseling are happy and healthy adults, and they seek treatment because they appreciate the support that counseling sessions offer, and they find the ability to share is an element of their continued growth.
For clients who have discontinued treatment, but find that their issues are returning, they may return to counseling sessions. Clients who attend counseling for a year, take a break for a few months or years, and return when they feel the need, are taking part in «intermittent counseling.»
When people progress through new life stages or experience an event that triggers a past problem, they often return to counseling. The truth is that there will always be problems, and that nobody’s life is perfect—even after counseling. New issues pop up, or the old ones return. That’s normal, and natural, and nothing to be ashamed of. Intermittent counseling is an excellent way to maintain mental health and continue personal growth.
The «Other Factor»
Counseling can be expensive, and most clients can’t afford to attend counseling sessions without assistance from health insurance companies. And, because health insurance companies often pay for a certain number of sessions per year, once those sessions are used up, the client is either forced to pay the full cost of the session out-of-pocket—or wait until the new year, and continue sessions at that point. Very often, it is the number of sessions that a health insurance policy will pay for that determines how long counseling takes.
Counselors will often lower their fees for clients who are having money problems, but that may not be enough (and it should be remembered that lowering fees is a very, very nice thing for a counselor to do). It is an unfortunate truth that the length of counseling is often dictated by how many sessions a health insurance company will allow.
Final Thoughts on Counseling Duration
Again, the most honest answer to the question, «How long does counseling take?» is «It depends.» But given that counseling length can sometimes be determined by the issues that a person faces, the discussion above can give you some clues.
We hope this helps. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below!