What is supportive therapy?

Supportive therapy is particularly effective during a difficult period when the client is seeking support for a transient problem (such as conflict) or is dealing with loss (relationship break-up, divorce, grief, loss of job…). Supportive therapy is not suited to tackling specific disorders, such as personality disorders (see the mental disorders page here), that are long-standing and deep-rooted. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) will be the treatment of choice in this case because it can produce changes in the core structure of personality (see more about CBT here).

Supportive therapy is a kind of treatment that intends to activate healthy areas of the patient’s personality in order to foster a more effective adaptation to reality. Rather than being associated with a specific school of thought, supportive therapy can be described as being a set of techniques that fit various theoretical orientations. In that sense, it is very similar to what is called counseling.

Differently from psychoanalytic or psychodynamic psychotherapy, which focuses on unconscious factors motivating and sustaining problematic behavior, supportive therapy looks at the conscious and reality-based factors causing psychological distress. A supportive approach understands that psychological difficulties result from a change (perhaps sudden) in one’s homeostasis (balance), caused by a clash between a predisposed personality and environmental factors. The term “supportive” means to sustain and build on the client’s internal and external resources with the purpose of fostering a better psychological functioning and a more effective adaptation to reality.

Like in CBT, the goals of supportive psychotherapy are: 

– Restore, maintain, or improve a person’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, psychological functioning, and adaptive skills

– Improve symptoms, show the way to more positive ways of thinking

– Encourage a more effective, helpful, or positive organization of daily life

– Return to the level of functioning that existed before the crisis and prevent relapse

– Improve client’s ability to live with problems that cannot be eradicated

What happens in supportive psychotherapy?

Supportive therapy provides greater emphasis on the external, reality-based factors contributing to psychological distress. In a climate of tolerance and therapeutic alliance, therapist and client will: 

– Develop a personal project to increase patient’s self-esteem, self-reliance and well-being

– Explore hypothetical situations associated with change and the motivation for change

– Focus on daily concerns and activities and re-organise where necessary

– Increase awareness of the problems and of the client’s perspectives

– Increase patient’s knowledge about the problem (psychoeducation) 

– Collaboratively develop strategies for reducing the impact of the problem on daily life

– Stimulate client to take up new challenges and roles that might strengthen adjustment to reality