Is Therapy Ever the Wrong Treatment Option?

group therapy with a diverse group of people sitting in a circle

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You may have heard people say that anyone and everyone should go to therapy. And while therapy can be and is good for many people, like any other kind of health treatment—it might not be the right treatment for everyone. 

For starters, everyone should know that starting with therapy doesn’t automatically mean that just by showing up every week, you will feel better every time you walk out the door or log off a telehealth session. Therapy is hard work, but it is worth it. In fact, research shows that more than 70% of people who attend therapy see some improvement.

Knowing when therapy isn't a good idea for you is as much self-care as going to therapy is, so read on to find out how you can know if therapy is the wrong treatment for you right now. (FYI, just because now’s not the time, doesn’t mean it never will be.)

When Therapy Is the Wrong Treatment Option

There are a handful of reasons that therapy might be the wrong treatment option, including time, money, and just not being ready to change yet. Read on to learn when therapy might not be the right thing for you.

Money

Financial constraints may be one of the biggest roadblocks to therapy. While there are some free and low-cost therapy services and programs available, the truth is that therapy can be very expensive.

Therapy might end up stretching your budget a bit, but if it puts you in a position of not being able to pay other bills or having to drastically change your lifestyle to afford it, creating another problem for yourself isn’t worth the psychological gains you might achieve.

However, research shows that this can go both ways. Research in England showed that therapy could be up to thirty-two times more effective at making one happy than a raise. (This, presumably, is among a population whose needs are already met).

An experiment in Kenya where one low-income group received money and the other low-income group received therapy showed that the group who received money fared better psychologically than the group who received therapy. Financial stress can cause mental health issues. And in low-income cases, therapy may not be helpful when it cannot address systemic imbalances that lead to poverty.

Time

If you are a stressed-out person with lots on your plate—and with nothing that you realistically can remove—trying to carve out an hour for therapy once a week, even if it’s via telehealth, might be more than you have the capacity for.

Too Angry

Yes, it’s possible to be too angry for therapy! If you are in a situation that is either still ongoing or happened recently and is really emotionally raw for you, you might not be ready to process it if you’re not ready to give up that anger.

And that’s fine—anger is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, anger is one of the original primitive emotions—its primal purpose is to keep us safe.

If you are feeling intense anger right now and the thought of working through it, makes you angrier, you might not be ready for therapy, and that’s more than fine! Your anger is keeping you safe if you’re not necessarily ready to be feeling those things. 

When Therapy Could Even Be Dangerous

While generally therapy is relatively safe, there are a few distinct situations where therapy could cause more harm than good, especially since therapy will likely make you feel a little bit worse before you feel better as you explore things you might never have talked about before.

Intimate Partner Violence

In situations of intimate partner violence, it may actually be dangerous for someone to seek therapy for reasons such as the abuser seeing the credit charge and getting angry or a therapist pushing a client to make a change and leave the partner.

Leaving the abusive partner is actually the time when the survivor may be most at risk,so it is necessary to have a very thorough plan.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Suicidal Ideation or Self-Harming

“When there are high levels of suicidal ideation or self-harming behaviors,” says Racine Renee Henry, PhD,  “it may actually be harmful to start therapy because there’s not enough risk management in place." Dr. Henry notes that other resources are necessary.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Severe Mental Illness

Severe mental illness is defined as anything in the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5 (SCID), which includes:

  • Schizophrenia 
  • Schizophrenia or schizophreniform or schizoaffective disorder
  • Major depressive disorder, recurrent
  • Bipolar I, acute mania
  • Bipolar 1 or Bipolar II, depressed
  • Adult ADHD 

If you have one of the severe mental illnesses above and you’re in an acute phase and/or not on medication, therapy probably won’t be helpful at that time, says Henry. “However, if you are on medication, you shouldn’t be without a therapist.” Research shows that the best combination is therapy and medication.

What If You Decide That Therapy Isn't Right For You at This Time?

If you realize that therapy might not be right for you right now, there are many resources out there that can help you manage your own mental health if you're otherwise feeling relatively stable and safe, but here are a few that come therapist-recommended by Dr. Henry. 

Recognize What Your Baseline Is

Dr. Henry recommends thinking about what your baseline might be. In other words, think about who you are when you're calm and at ease.

Dr. Racine Renee Henry

“Know what your own normal is—what your home base is."

— Dr. Racine Renee Henry

To understand what your baseline is ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I eating?
  • What time do I go to sleep?
  • How often do you shower?
  • Who am I spending time with? 

She recommends either telling a friend and/or writing down a list of those things for yourself and keeping in mind how far you’re deviating from that baseline.

When you notice that you're deviating from your baseline, it might be a good time to see a therapist. But, if you feel good and don't think therapy would be of use to you, then you don't have to go. However, even attending therapy when you feel good is OK too! You can talk about other things and learn more things about yourself during that time.

Make an Effort to Prioritize Activities That You Enjoy

If you decide that therapy isn't for you, try to engage in some of your favorite hobbies. Maybe you like to paint or run or go to museums. Fill up your time with things that bring you joy.

Consider Going to Group Therapy

If you've determined that individual therapy isn't right for you, consider attending group therapy. In group therapy, sessions are moderated by a mental health professional. Rather than one-on-one therapy, you and several other people can join.

You can find a sense of community and solace knowing that you are not alone in whatever you're dealing with.

Also, group therapy is often much cheaper than individual therapy.

Seek Out a Peer Support Specialist

Peer support specialists are people who have dealt with addiction or mental health disorders and have successfully completed recovery. Peer support specialists are certified and they can assist you as you work on recovery.

Peer support is not a replacement for therapy; however, talking to a trained professional who has also had a similar life experience can be helpful. For instance, people who use peer support often report feelings of developing trust and feeling understood by their peer support specialists.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.