Getting Started: Talk Therapy for Depression

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 06, 2010
4 min read

Many studies have found that talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can help treat depression. Talk therapy can help you learn about your depression and help you find ways to manage your symptoms.

“Talk therapy can give you the skills to help handle your depression, so for many people it’s a very empowering experience,” says Larry Christensen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. “This makes it effective over a long period of time.”

If you have mild to moderate depression, talk therapy might be all you need to feel better. But if you have more severe depression, you might benefit from medication in addition to talk therapy. Here are some tips for getting started.

There are many different kinds of talk therapy. The two most commonly used for depression are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy. CBT focuses on looking at how negative thought patterns may be affecting your mood. The therapist helps you learn how to make positive changes in your thoughts and behaviors. Interpersonal therapy focuses on how you relate to others and helps you make positive changes in your personal relationships. Both types of therapy can be effective in treating depression.

Various kinds of mental health specialists offer talk therapy:

  • Psychiatrists. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who treats mental illnesses. While some psychiatrists only see patients to prescribe medication, others also provide talk therapy. In most states, psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medication.
  • Psychologists. A psychologist can help you learn how to manage your depression and teach you ways to cope.
  • Social workers, counselors, or therapists. These mental health professionals can also help you learn to manage depression and teach you coping skills.

No matter what type of therapist you see, look for someone you feel comfortable talking to. “Your comfort level with the therapist is much more important than what kind of degree that person has,” says Eric Endlich, PhD, a Boston-based clinical psychologist. “Therapy is generally much more successful if you like your therapist and have a good relationship with that person.”

If you need help finding a therapist, try these suggestions:

  • Ask family and friends. Chances are some of your family or friends have seen a therapist. Ask those you trust for a recommendation. If a therapist you contact can’t see you, ask if they can recommend another therapist.
  • Ask your doctor. Your doctor likely has referrals to mental health specialists in your area.
  • Ask your clergy person. Most clergy members will be able to provide you with referrals for mental health providers.
  • Check with your employee assistance program (EAP). If you work for a large company, your EAP may be able to provide a referral.
  • Check with your insurance company. If you have insurance, your insurance company likely has a list of therapists in their network.

After you’ve collected a few names, call at least two therapists and talk with them about your situation. Feel free to ask them questions about their experience dealing with depression and their approach to treatment. If you like what you hear, make an appointment. But don’t feel that you have to commit to the first therapist you speak with or even the first one you see.

“When you’re looking for a therapist, it’s important to do some comparison shopping,” Endlich tells WebMD. “If you don’t think the therapist is the right fit for you, look for someone else. It’s really important to feel comfortable and find the right fit, and this might take a few phone calls or visits.”

At your first session, be prepared to tell your therapist about your depression and what led you to seek help. It may be helpful to think about what you’d like to get out of the therapy. For example, are you looking for ways to better deal with personal relationships, or are you hoping to set goals for yourself and make changes? It’s helpful to be as honest as you can with your therapist about your depression and your goals for therapy.

After listening to your situation, the therapist should be able to tell you what type of treatment they recommend and come up with a treatment plan for you. If the therapist thinks you might benefit from medication, they may recommend that you also meet with a psychiatrist or doctor.

You may not feel better right away from talk therapy, but over time, you should start to notice some improvement. You might notice that relationships are getting easier or that your overall mood has improved. Or you might feel better able to understand your feelings or actions.

If you aren’t feeling any better, talk with your therapist. They may be able to try another approach to therapy or refer you for other kinds of treatment. Or you might benefit from seeing someone else. You may need to see more than one therapist to find the type of therapy that’s right for you.

Therapy is not always easy and can sometimes even be painful as you work through difficult problems. But if you stick with it, talk therapy can also be gratifying and rewarding -- and can give you the tools you need to help ease your depression.