The MHS Journals

Our blog archive of insights and intel


Why Do People Leave Therapy Early? How Long Should It Last?

Aug 12, 2021





Updated: June 12, 2024

Therapy can be life-changing and even life-saving for people struggling with depression and other mental health conditions. However, many clients discontinue treatment too soon. As you read this blog, you’ll begin to understand the following:

  • Many people start to feel better and believe that it’s okay to leave therapy.
  • Sometimes clients have unrealistic expectations about how treatment works and discontinue therapy when the reality doesn’t match up.
  • The cost of treatment can be a barrier to keeping clients in therapy.

Why Do Many People Leave Therapy Before They Are Ready?

It can be challenging for therapists and patients to know when the time is right to end treatment sessions. In general, when clients reach their therapeutic goals, it may be time to wrap up the treatments. Sometimes, therapy stops when it becomes clear that this particular patient/therapist relationship will not achieve those goal.However, some studies suggest that more than half of the clients who seek therapy don’t return after the first appointment. Many factors can lead clients to drop out of treatment long before achieving what they set out to do, read on with MHS.

The Patient-Therapist Relationship

The relationship between a client and a therapist is called the therapeutic relationship, and its importance cannot be overestimated. Many researchers believe it is the single most crucial factor in whether therapy is successful. This perspective is understandable since patients share very personal and sometimes painful and traumatic things with their therapists. They must feel comfortable with being vulnerable with the professionals. Therefore, when a patient doesn’t relate well to the therapist’s style or personality, making progress is extremely difficult.

Unrealistic Expectations

Clients who are new to therapy may have unrealistic expectations about what they can accomplish in therapy, how much time it will take, and how much work it can be. When they realize that healing from trauma, dealing with mental health diagnoses, and changing unhealthy behaviors can take time, effort and cause emotional pain, they may give up and fail to return to therapy. Those feelings may not last forever, though. The client may feel more ready in the future and return to treatment with a more realistic view of what to expect. This new state of readiness may lead to more successful outcomes.

Therapist Specialty

Therapists often specialize in a particular area or method of practice. For example, some professionals may specialize in working with children, married couples, teenagers, or the elderly. Therapists may specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy or brief therapy, for example. When clients don’t understand the therapist’s specialty or feel that it’s a poor fit, they may lose faith in the therapeutic relationship. Professionals can help avoid these situations by ensuring that websites and printed advertising materials clearly state any special competence and focus areas.

Cost & Scheduling

Two of the more practical factors that keep clients from staying in therapy are cost and time. Insurance may not wholly cover the costs of treatment, and clients may struggle to pay their portion. Clients often have trouble finding time for therapy, especially if they are also managing a job, school, family, and other demands. While these are reasonable concerns, sometimes they are excuses that clients use to mask much deeper issues. Therapists can help patients understand that it is okay to make therapy and their mental health a priority. When clients receive that kind of support, they may find money in the budget and hours in the week to continue with therapy.

Things to Consider Before Leaving Therapy

The decision to end therapy is a complicated one, and there is no magic formula that works for everyone. Some clients feel significant improvement after a single session; others can see the same therapies for years and still feel they are making progress. Clients with more complex emotional issues or mental health diagnoses may need many years of treatment, whereas dealing with a more specific topic such as phobias may be resolved in a few weeks. Here are a few things to consider when thinking through whether it’s time to leave therapy.

Listen to Your Therapist

Keep an open line of communication with your therapist about how you are progressing toward your goals. Professional counselors understand that therapy sessions aren’t meant to go on forever. Just as the client is, they are aware that every session should be moving toward agreed-upon therapeutic goals. As those goals are achieved, therapy may not end all at once. The therapist may recommend tapering off visits. For example, the visits may change from weekly to monthly.

Trust the Process

Clients should not feel pressured to jump into therapy, resolve all their issues quickly, and end the sessions within some concrete timeline. Sometimes, clients enter treatment for one reason and discover additional problems that need more time. As long as the therapist and client agree that the sessions are productive and healthy, it’s fine to continue, even if that takes longer than anticipated. No doctor would ever rush a patient through treatment for a physical injury; the healing process takes as much time as it takes. The same is true for the completion of counseling for mental health issues.

Keep in mind that therapy is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As clients progress toward their treatment goals, they may take a temporary break from therapy and resume sessions later. Many clients enter and leave therapy in a healthy way several times throughout their lives.

Where Can I Learn More?

Our team of compassionate and knowledgeable professionals at MHS DBT & Mental Health Services can answer your questions about the therapeutic relationship, how it starts, and how it ends healthily. At MHS, we offer services for adolescents through senior adults. Our team provides depression counseling, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and help for many other diagnoses, such as anxiety and substance abuse. All of our programs focus on evidence-based care with individualized care plans. Contact us today online or by calling (651) 358-2163 to schedule an appointment.

Featured Image: BlurryMe/Shutterstock