On This Page
Therapy vs Medication: Your Decision-Making Guide
At OpenCounseling, we believe in the power of therapy to help you overcome depression, anxiety, trauma, and a host of other mental and emotional challenges. Based on our personal experiences giving and receiving therapy, as well as our review of the research, we know that therapy is effective and that it can help you heal, grow, and recover.
But while we love and believe in therapy, we don’t share the view of other therapy-focused sites that medication is morally or medically inferior to therapy. In fact, research suggests that medication and therapy are similarly effective and that who responds to what depends on the person, not the type of treatment.
We want you to find what works best for you. In this article, we present an overview of expert opinions and research results that we hope will help you make informed decisions about your treatment. Of course, it’s important to consult with a mental health professional who understands and addresses your unique circumstances. The best way to use this article is for preliminary research that can inform the discussion you have with a therapist or psychiatrist.
On This Page
- Therapy vs. Medication for Depression
- Therapy vs. Medication for Anxiety Disorders
- Therapy vs. Medication for Psychotic and Bipolar Disorders
- Therapy vs. Medication for Other Mental Health Conditions
- Therapy vs. Medication for Children with Mental Health Conditions
- ADHD Medication vs. Therapy
- Fast Results vs. Long-Term Recovery
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs. Medication: Weighing the Evidence
- Medication vs. Therapy for Mental Illness: Assessing Symptom Severity
- Talk Therapy vs. Medication: Access, Cost, and Quality
- "One Size Fits All" vs. Tailored Treatment: The Significance of Personal Factors
- "Hard Work" vs. "The Quick Fix": Moral Myths About Therapy and Medication
Therapy vs. Medication for Depression
Most research on therapy versus medication focuses on treatment for depression. The results show that both medication and therapy are effective treatments for it.
Depression can range in severity from mild seasonal changes in mood to serious, disabling symptoms that can limit your ability to work, maintain relationships, or engage in everyday self-care tasks. Medication and therapy can effectively treat mild, moderate, and major depression.
Depression Statistics: How Prevalent Is Depression?
The results of research on medication versus therapy for depression vary. Some studies show that therapy is more effective. Others show that medication is more effective, while several studies show that both are equally effective.
Based on these findings, it would be false to say either therapy or medication was the “winner” or the best choice for everyone. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that both are considered to be effective evidence-based treatments for depression and that personal factors should play a role in which you choose.
How Popular Are Antidepressants?
Antidepressants are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in America. In fact, 5 out of the 25 most frequently prescribed drugs in 2018 were antidepressant medications (ADMs):
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Citalopram (Celexa)
- Trazodone (Oleptro)
- Bupropion (Wellbutrin)
The only classes of drugs prescribed more often than antidepressants in 2018 were medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The upside of the popularity of ADMs is that more people are receiving effective treatment for depression than ever before. The downside is that ADMs have become the default treatment for depression, even for people who would prefer, or be better served by, therapy.
If any consistent result has come from the research, it’s that the best treatment for depression depends on your unique circumstances.
If you can only participate in treatment for a short period of time, therapy may be a better choice because its effects persist after therapy has ended, while antidepressants generally only continue to work as long as you take them. (This may be enough if you’re able to address life issues contributing to your depression while you’re taking ADMs.)
Factors That Affect How Well Depression Treatment Works
Other factors that determine whether therapy or medication is the better choice include:
- Whether you have a significant history of childhood trauma
- Whether you have access to therapists with the right levels of expertise
- Which areas of your brain are underactive or overactive as a result of depression
- Whether certain depressive symptoms are more prominent for you than others
- Whether your depression is primarily driven by negative thoughts or emotional reactivity
- Whether you have a history of depressive relapse or recurrent depressive episodes
- Whether you have other medical conditions or are taking other kinds of medication
You can read the linked articles for the full analysis. One important research finding to consider is that therapy appears to be more effective than medication if you have a history of trauma. (Though medication can effectively treat some trauma-related symptoms and augment the effects of therapy.)
It’s also important to consider which option excites or inspires you most. Your motivation to maintain your treatment regimen will play a significant role in how well it works for you.
Ultimately, your best result will come from telling a mental health professional about your unique history, symptoms, and life circumstances and getting a personalized treatment recommendation from them.
Therapy vs. Medication for Anxiety Disorders
Research shows that therapy and medication are both effective treatments for anxiety. Which is the best for you depends on your preferences, circumstances, and what type of anxiety disorder or symptoms you have.
Anxiety Statistics: How Prevalent Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the United States, with 18 percent of the United States population, or about 40 million adults, experiencing an anxiety disorder each year.
The most prevalent anxiety disorders are specific phobias, which affect 8.7 percent of American adults; social anxiety disorder, which affects 6.8 percent of adults in the U.S. each year; and generalized anxiety disorder, which affects about 3 percent of the adult population.
Anxiety can be treated with different kinds of medications. The most popular anxiety medications are sedatives and antidepressants that have anti-anxiety properties. The most popular sedative medications for anxiety are benzodiazepines.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are powerful drugs that are popular for their rapid calming effects. Drugs in this class include:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
When they are used to treat anxiety disorders, they are usually prescribed for short-term symptom management, not as long-term medications.
Many people can take benzodiazepines as prescribed and benefit from them without significant complications or side effects. However, they come with many risks, which include:
- Chemical dependency or addiction
- An increase in impulsive or reckless behavior
- Dangerous interactions with other medications
- Overdose and blackout episodes (especially when mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol)
For these reasons, not all doctors and psychiatrists are comfortable prescribing them, especially to people who have co-occurring anxiety and substance use disorders.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other medications that were originally formulated as antidepressants are also effective in treating anxiety. Antidepressants come with their own risks and side effects, but they are generally milder than those associated with benzodiazepines.
For this reason, many physicians prefer prescribing SSRIs and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) over other medications for anxiety.
Which Medications Can Treat Both Anxiety and Depression?
Medications that are now used to treat both depression and anxiety include:
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Citalopram (Celexa)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro)
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta)
- Venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
These medications come with risks and side effects, but in many cases, the risks are lower than they are with other medications that can be used to treat anxiety.
Research shows that therapy for anxiety can be as effective as medication. In some cases, it may be even more effective. A large meta-analysis, or a review of multiple studies that included over 13,000 participants, found that cognitive behavioral therapy was the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder. Other studies have replicated this result.
Other anxiety disorders also respond well to therapy. A 2019 study found that tailored CBT techniques were effective in reducing worry, the core symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and in facilitating overall recovery from GAD.
A type of CBT called Exposure and Response Prevention is recommended alongside medication as the most effective treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Therapy is particularly recommended if your OCD symptoms have not responded to medication.
Therapy vs. Medication for Psychotic and Bipolar Disorders
To successfully treat psychotic and bipolar disorders, medication is usually required.
Therapy is not as effective as antipsychotic medications in controlling psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. It is also not as effective as medication in controlling manic symptoms or preventing manic episodes.
What Are Antipsychotic Medications?
Antipsychotic medications can help reduce active symptoms of psychotic disorders including delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thought processes. Some of the most commonly prescribed antipsychotic medications are:
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
- Risperidone (Risperdal)
- Quetiapine (Seroquel)
- Aripiprazole (Abilify)
- Ziprasidone (Geodon)
- Clozapine (Clozaril)
Most people who have schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder must take anti-psychotic medications to be able to live and function independently in the community.
While therapy isn’t a sufficient alternative to antipsychotic medication for most people with psychotic disorders, it can still help. Studies show that CBT can effectively treat medication-resistant positive symptoms of psychosis like hallucinations and delusions, even in early psychosis.
Therapy can also address the negative symptoms of psychotic disorders (like flat emotions and social withdrawal), which don’t respond as well to antipsychotic medications. Specialized CBT techniques that target worry can reduce delusions, anxiety, and paranoia in people with psychotic disorders.
Overall, therapy promotes better long-term recovery for people with psychotic disorders than medication alone.
What Are Mood Stabilizers?
Therapy isn’t as effective at preventing manic episodes as mood stabilizing medications for bipolar disorder, which include:
- Lamotrigine (Lamictal)
- Valproic acid (Depakote)
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol)
- Topiramate (Topamax)
In some cases, antipsychotic medications like aripiprazole (Abilify), olanzapine (Zyprexa), and quetiapine (Seroquel) are used as mood stabilizers for people with bipolar disorder even when they don’t have psychotic symptoms.
Therapy can benefit people with bipolar disorder by addressing symptoms that aren’t well controlled by mood stabilizers. Interpersonal therapy, CBT, and psychoeducation can help you track and manage moods and identify warning signs and triggers for new mood episodes. Therapy facilitates faster recovery from depressive episodes and can help reduce rates of symptom relapse.
In conclusion, while medications are usually necessary, therapy also plays a role in treating bipolar and psychotic disorders. Some people don’t respond to medications for these conditions or find that the medications they take don’t fully control their symptoms. Even if you do respond well to medication, you can often benefit from the addition of therapy to support and enhance its effects.
Therapy vs. Medication for Other Mental Health Conditions
Some mental health conditions don’t respond well, if at all, to medications. For example, while medications can sometimes help you manage specific symptoms of personality disorders, therapy is best, as it is the only treatment that addresses the core traits of these conditions.
Similarly, while some medications, particularly SSRIs, can treat mood or cognitive symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), therapy is recommended as the first-line treatment for PTSD. Advances in research on PTSD and other trauma-related conditions have led to the development of effective trauma-oriented therapies including cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
For More Information
Insomnia has historically been treated with medication, but that’s not your only option. A newer form of CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), has proven so successful that the American College of Physicians now recommends it as the first-line treatment for insomnia.
Therapy vs. Medication for Children with Mental Health Conditions
As with adults, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing between therapy or medication for children. Some conditions require medication to successfully treat, while others respond better to therapy.
Combining therapy and medication can improve outcomes for a range of childhood mental health conditions including depression and anxiety disorders. Therapy can help even very young children address and improve psychiatric symptoms and associated behavioral problems.
Medications can play an essential role in stabilizing severe psychiatric symptoms that put children at risk of harm. However, lack of certainty about how psychiatric medications affect a child’s developing brain intensify the dilemma of therapy versus medication for parents and clinicians. What should you do when a child is not in crisis, but is experiencing symptoms that are disruptive or painful?
Nowhere is the debate more intense than over how to treat children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD Medication vs. Therapy
Prescription rates for stimulants used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall and Vyvanse), have continued to rise in the United States. These medications effectively manage symptoms of ADHD for many children and adults, but they don’t work for everyone, and side effects can be significant.
An Alternative to Stimulant Medication
One alternative for people who are sensitive to stimulants is non-stimulant ADHD medication like atomoxetine (Strattera), which is a popular and effective option for both children and adults.
Fortunately, therapy is an effective treatment for ADHD as well. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend behavior therapy as “the first line of treatment, before medication is tried” for children under six years of age.
For children of all ages and young adults, research suggests that therapy may be more effective over the long term than medication treatment for ADHD, and that combining both can be especially effective.
Research shows that specialized CBT for ADHD symptoms can improve outcomes for adults with the disorder. This finding supports the growing consensus that combining therapy and medication works well for ADHD.
Fast Results vs. Long-Term Recovery
One factor that is important to consider when you’re comparing therapy and medication is timing. In general, medications take effect faster and have stronger effects in the early stages of treatment, while therapy takes longer to have an effect but yields lasting effects that grow stronger over time.
This may be the reason that many people choose to combine both forms of treatment, especially when their symptoms are severe. Medications can help you stabilize more quickly after a mental health crisis, while engaging in therapy can improve your chances of long-term recovery and reduce the risk of relapse when or if you stop taking psychiatric medication.
Some studies show that combining therapy and medication actually impairs long-term recovery, but other studies show the opposite result. Once again, it depends on your particular symptoms and other personal factors.
The best way to find the right option for you is to speak with an experienced mental health practitioner who can assess your unique circumstances and make a recommendation based on your specific case.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs. Medication: Weighing the Evidence
Research shows that many kinds of therapy are effective and that universal factors like the relationship between you and your therapist play a more important role in the effectiveness of therapy than the method a therapist uses.
Nonetheless, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been studied more intensively than any other form of therapy and is the therapeutic method with the strongest evidence base.
Are Some Evidence-Based Methods Over-Hyped?
This doesn’t mean they aren’t effective; it just means they may not be as effective as they are said to be in both academic and popular publications.
Its measurable and powerful effects may reflect how CBT, in its own way, is like medication—with its laser focus on symptom relief, it can take effect and produce measurable results faster than other therapeutic methods.
It’s also effective in treating a range of conditions. Cognitive behavioral therapy was originally developed to treat depression and anxiety disorders, which it does well. Over the years, specialized forms of CBT have been developed to treat trauma-related conditions, personality disorders, and insomnia as well.
This doesn’t mean that if you feel drawn to a type of treatment that isn’t as well-researched as CBT, you shouldn’t choose it. Even with CBT, the evidence is not conclusive beyond the fact it’s generally effective. Just how effective it is, and under what circumstances, and if it is truly superior in both the short- and long-term over other therapeutic methods, is another matter.
For More Information
For more information on the different therapy methods, including how they work and which conditions and circumstances each method is best suited to address, you can read our article “Which Therapy Method Is Right for Me?”
Ultimately, the most important research is your own. Take notes on what works for you and read the news, especially on developments in the mental health field.
New insights emerge each year, and the best way to ensure that you’re receiving evidence-based treatment is to review the latest developments in the research.
By reading mental health news, you can not only learn about new methods and medications, you can also learn tips and tricks that will help you adjust your approach and make it more effective.
Medication vs. Therapy for Mental Illness: Assessing Symptom Severity
The severity of your symptoms is another important factor to consider. Severe symptoms, especially when they reach a crisis point, can put you at risk of harm. Taking fast-acting medications can stabilize severe symptoms and keep you safe before therapy has had time to work (or even before you’re mentally ready for therapy).
What Is Serious Mental Illness (SMI)?
In general, you’re considered to have a severe or serious mental illness (SMI) if you:
- Are diagnosed, or could be diagnosed with, a mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that is severe and has persisted over time.
- (Note that while other disorders can qualify as SMI, the diagnoses most commonly associated with SMI are:
- Bipolar disorder,
- Severe major depressive disorder, and
- Schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.)
- (Note that while other disorders can qualify as SMI, the diagnoses most commonly associated with SMI are:
- Experience changes in mood or thinking that persist over time, cause significant pain or distress, and interfere with your daily functioning.
- Suffer significant functional impairment in one or more of the following areas as a result of your mental health symptoms:
- Interpersonal relationships (you are socially isolated or experience significant chaos or instability in your relationships).
- Work or school (you have lost a job, failed a class, or are otherwise having difficulty fulfilling responsibilities at work or school).
- Society and the legal system (you have been arrested or incarcerated multiple times or are having other serious social difficulties that affect your security or well-being).
- Activities of daily living (you’re having difficulty caring for or keeping up with your personal hygiene or the hygiene of your home; you’re homeless or experiencing housing instability; you’re unable to maintain good nutrition; or you’re not taking medications or actions you need to take to manage chronic medical conditions).
- Have mental health symptoms that interfere with your ability to tell the difference between what’s happening inside your mind and what’s happening in the world around you.
Even within the same general mental health episode, symptoms can shift in severity. What might start out as a vague sadness can develop into a depressive episode. On the other hand, it’s possible for a long-standing mental health condition to resolve to the point that you’re ready to move beyond symptom stabilization to work on personal growth goals like being more creative or living more authentically.
That said, the severity of the issues you want to address can guide your treatment decisions. If you’re in crisis or otherwise experiencing severe mental health symptoms, medication and intensive treatment like inpatient or day treatment programs are usually recommended to make sure you stabilize as quickly as possible.
If you have moderate symptoms that respond to both medication and therapy, consider combining both. If you have mild or no active psychiatric symptoms but want to make changes in your life, therapy may be the best fit for your needs.
Again, though, it depends on your unique situation. Talking to a mental health professional will help you find what’s right for you.
Talk Therapy vs. Medication: Access, Cost, and Quality
As we understand well at OpenCounseling, the cost of therapy is a deciding factor for many people who are thinking about trying it.
Research suggests that while both medication and therapy are similarly cost-effective, therapy may be more cost-effective over the long term than medication. On the other hand, medication can often be more immediately financially accessible, especially if you have insurance.
If you can get medication for free or for a minimal co-pay, and you only need to go to a single annual appointment with your primary care physician to maintain your prescription, medication may be the more affordable and sustainable choice. And if it’s more affordable, you’re more likely to maintain it over time, which is an essential factor in long-term recovery.
Quality control is also a little bit easier with medication than with therapy. While primary care doctors usually aren’t as good as psychiatrists at adjusting medications, and some medications that work well for some people don’t work at all for others, the effect of medication is generally more predictable than the effect of therapy. Some bad therapists can do more harm than good and it can take some time to find a therapist who’s the right match.
On the contrary, if therapy fits into your budget and schedule, the lasting skills and lessons you gain from it can help keep you mentally well and prevent relapse long after you’ve stopped going, making it more affordable in the long term.
Whether you have access to a therapist who has expertise in using a specific method or working with clients similar to you can also determine whether therapy is the most effective choice for you. Working with a therapist who doesn’t know how to address your particular needs can be a huge waste of time and money.
Ultimately, personal factors will determine what form of treatment is most affordable for you. The most important thing is to get treatment at all. As the World Health Organization says, “Treatment of depressive [or any other mental health] disorder is cost-effective compared to no treatment.”
"One Size Fits All" vs. Tailored Treatment: The Significance of Personal Factors
Personal factors determine whether medication or therapy is effective for any given individual. Some of these factors have been identified specifically in the research. People with a significant history of childhood trauma seem to respond better to therapy than to medication, for example.
Some people need a treatment “tune-up” after a successful first round of treatment with therapy, medication, or both. Which route you go will depend on what worked for you last time.
For example, it might not make as much sense to go back to therapy if your most recent experience wasn’t helpful or if you already know from past experience that a medication tune-up should address your current symptoms.
Conversely, if you had a negative experience with a medication that didn’t work well, that took a long time to work, or that caused severe side effects, you might want to opt for trying a round of therapy instead of trying medication again.
Reading research and knowing what’s generally effective is important, but nothing is as important as trusting yourself and your own lived experience.
"Hard Work" vs. "The Quick Fix": Moral Myths About Therapy and Medication
Our culture has a love-hate relationship with psychiatric medication. Though doctors prescribe it extensively, it’s also frequently dismissed with condescending terms like “happy pills” or “the quick fix.” The popular narrative is that medications are the “lazy” or easy route, while therapy is the heroic choice, reflecting a person’s capacity for hard work and emotional “bravery.”
These are myths.
If you take psychiatric medication, you may continue to struggle with residual symptoms or other issues medication can’t address—but that the medication makes it possible for you to address. You may have to put in a lot of work to help your prescribing physician make the right changes or adjustments to get your medication to work.
For many people, taking medication, going to therapy, or doing both is just the first step in a long-term personal recovery program that also includes significant lifestyle changes. Regardless of which type of treatment you receive, the biggest changes, greatest growth, and most significant impacts come from the choices you make in your day-to-day life.
Therapy is less effective if you don’t do your homework in between sessions or don’t apply what you’re learning in the therapy room to your life outside of it. It’s true that simply showing up for a session takes work, because it means facing instead of avoiding the issues you’re seeking treatment to address. But it’s not true that if you’re in therapy, you’re necessarily doing more work than people who are treating their mental health issues with medication.
If someone is criticizing you for choosing to take medication or see a therapist, it’s probably because they’re projecting their own unresolved issues onto you. Let their lack of understanding be their problem; your mental health is what matters most.
Both medication and therapy are effective ways to treat a wide range of mental health conditions. Whether you should choose one over the other, combine both, or use each at a different point in your recovery depends on a number of things.
What to Consider Before You Choose
When you’re trying to decide whether therapy or medication (or both) is the right choice for you, consider the following:
- Which mental health condition or symptoms you’re treating
- The severity of your mental health condition or symptoms
- Whether you’ve achieved good results with therapy or medication (or both) in the past
- Whether you’ve had a bad reaction to therapy or medication (or both) in the past
- Which type of treatment is the most accessible where you live
- Which type of treatment has the most experienced clinicians available to you
- Which is most affordable for you now and which will be most affordable long-term
- Whether you’re in crisis or otherwise need fast-acting treatment for your safety or stability
- Whether your symptoms are related to past (or recent) experiences or traumas that you need to process or “talk through” to fully resolve
- Whether you have comorbid medical or mental health issues that would be negatively or positively affected by side (or direct) effects of therapy or medication
Most people choose based on what is most appealing to them personally and what best fits their current circumstances. This is as good a reason as any for choosing one treatment approach over the other.
You’re more likely to stick to what works for you and what you like best. Motivation and long-term commitment will increase your chances of staying in treatment long enough to recover and will reduce the risk of symptom relapse.
The most important information to consider for your individual case comes from your own personal experience. Trust yourself! Even if the first thing you try doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as well as you’d hoped, it puts you a step closer to finding what does. Everything you try will improve your self-knowledge and take you further along your path of recovery.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.