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Single Session Psychotherapy

Therapists have a secret that they would rather most people not know.

Up to 40% of new psychotherapy clients never come back for a second session.

While many therapists would consider such single session clients “failures,” but the fact is that given how often it happens, they must provide people with some benefit or relief in some percentage of those cases. (Others likely just find the therapy experience not helpful to their needs, not what they expected, or disliked the particular therapist they saw.)

The APA’s Monitor on Psychology this month has an article on phenomenon, with helpful tips to therapists on how to make the most of a single session, including the finding that such single sessions can be helpful to people:

Indeed, as-yet-unpublished research by a team of psychologists from the Department of Veterans Affairs, found a single, 60-minute session can even help people with serious mental illness. After just one “motivational interview,” participants were significantly more likely to enter a vocational rehabilitation program, and they stayed in the program for three months longer than a control group, says Lisa Mueller, PhD, a research associate on the study, led by psychologist Charles Drebing, PhD.

Most people feel very relieved after their first session of psychotherapy. And for many, that’s sufficient. It’s a cathartic experience for them and they take something away from the chance to bare their souls to another person. Even if they never return.

The four tips offered in the article include:

  • Zero in on a single problem. By focusing on a single issue of most concern to the person and the reason that brought them into therapy, a therapist may be able to help provide the person with some guidance on how to best approach the issue.
  • Unearth hidden resources. The article notes that most people might have the tools and resources necessary to fix the big issue in their life. They may just need a little help finding them.
  • Don’t cajole. It’s important for a therapist to show a person they are on their side, and help them explore the pros and cons of a situation. You can’t force change to happen quickly, so a therapist shouldn’t bother to try.
  • Plan for the future. A therapist can be helpful if they provide the person with additional resources and direction on where to learn more about their problems on their own. One simple exercise taught in a single session can be helpful to a person to practice on their own, such as a relaxation tip or reframing of irrational thoughts.

I’d add a fifth tip — Never assume your new patient is coming back. If you treat every new patient as a possible single session intervention, you may be surprised to find how powerful and helpful that one session can be for people.

Read the full article at the American Psychological Association: Make the most of one session

Single Session Psychotherapy

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Single Session Psychotherapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 May 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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