What Are the Most Common Types of Therapy for Treating Severe Mental Illness?

Approximately 1 in 5 Americans lives with a mental illness. Mental illnesses refer to behavioral or emotional disorders ranging in severity. The symptoms may fluctuate depending on the individual's circumstances. Additionally, Some days will be harder than others.


That said, a serious mental illness can take a significant toll on the quality of someone's life. It interferes with one or more areas of functioning, and navigating the appropriate treatment can be tricky.


Therapy can provide tremendous relief and practical support for people struggling with severe mental illnesses. But how do you know which method to choose when there are so many different options? Let's review.


Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)


CBT is an evidence-based treatment that helps people understand the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many practitioners consider this method as the gold standard for treating mental illness.


CBT works under the assumption that people believe faulty thoughts (known as cognitive distortions) that negatively affect their mood. If they lack healthy coping skills, they're more susceptible to react to their negative mood by engaging in problematic behaviors, like withdrawing from others, self-harm, disordered eating, and substance use.


However, engaging in these behaviors can then trigger shame, guilt, or anger, perpetuating the vicious cycle.


In CBT, clients learn how to:

  • shift their negative thoughts into more realistic ones

  • identity (and challenge) negative core beliefs

  • socialize with others more effectively

  • use positive affirmations

  • practice relaxation skills when they feel overwhelmed or distressed

Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy focuses on improving the quality of the relationships in a client's life. Many times, mental illness compromises these connections. People may isolate, lash out, or fail to do the necessary work needed to maintain healthy relationships.


Interpersonal therapy helps clients learn how to:

  • build more self-confidence

  • improve their social skills

  • role-play setting boundaries and limits

  • navigate conflict resolution

  • disengage in problematic relationships

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is an offshoot of CBT, and many practitioners use it with high-risk clients struggling with severe mental illness. DBT focuses on the concept of finding acceptance while working towards greater change.


DBT helps clients in four core areas:

  • distress tolerance: learning how to cope with difficult emotions without self-destructing or reacting impulsively.

  • emotional regulation: identifying, recognizing, and learning how to accept different emotions as they arise.

  • mindfulness: learning how to live in the present moment and consciously be aware of yourself and your surroundings.

  • interpersonal effectiveness: improving the quality of your relationships with others through healthy communication, appropriate boundaries, and mutual respect.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on how early experiences and relationships affect current distress. In other words, the past becomes the present, and the present is a product of the past. In this therapy, clients learn how their defensive mechanisms block them from achieving greater fulfillment and happiness.


The goals of psychodynamic therapy include:

  • increasing self-awareness into unconscious processes

  • exploring and resolving vulnerable and painful feelings

  • examining how current problems relate to past experiences

Experiential Therapy


Experiential therapy may include art, music, equine, or other forms of holistic therapies. Experiential therapy can be beneficial for clients who haven't responded well to traditional talk therapy. These treatments can be standalone or used in conjunction with other models.


Experiential therapy allows clients to process their feelings and learn new skills without the constraints of formal face-to-face interactions.


These therapies can help clients:

  • increase confidence

  • discuss sensitive information that may feel too uncomfortable sharing directly

  • practice and gain mastery new skills

  • become more aware of the benefits of creative expression


Which of These Common Types of Therapy Is Right for You?

There isn't a one-size-fits-all recommendation for treatment. Some people respond extremely well to certain interventions. Others experience an opposite reaction. Additionally, many therapists blend techniques from different therapies into their practice.


When it comes to effective psychotherapy, the relationship between the client and therapist tends to be the most important factor for predicting success. A trusting and supportive relationship can supersede the specific model of treatment, length of care, and presenting problem.


That's because therapy tends to be vulnerable and raw. The client must feel safe and respected in sharing their feelings. Similarly, the therapist needs to be compassionate, non-judgmental, and open to the client's growth.


It's important for prospective clients to remember that finding the right fit can take time. They may need to meet with several different professionals.


Final Thoughts


Therapy can help you or your loved one understand, treat, and improve severe mental health symptoms. Each of these common types of therapy offers support and feasible solutions for change.


At the Mental Health House, we are advocates and allies for mental health. We believe therapy can have a profound, lasting impact on the quality of a client's life. If you are struggling, we are here for you. Contact us today to learn more.

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