Helen Stallman: Why we need to stop using the term “talking therapy”

The term “talking therapy” misrepresents what psychotherapy involves. Despite being a term that is not used by clinicians, it is widely-used internationally in communications with consumers. The NHS in the UK, for example, provides consumers with an overview of “talking therapies” as does the UK Mental Health Foundation. It is also frequently used by the media (eg, The ConversationPsychology Today)

Professional associations such as the American Psychological Association and the Australian Psychological Society, however, use the term psychotherapy, or they name particular types of psychotherapy, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy.

Aside from self-help, all therapies for physical or psychological illnesses involve communication (talking) between health practitioners and clients. Good communication helps clients feel understood and improves treatment outcomes, irrespective of the illness.

However, like pharmacotherapy and most other therapies for psychological disorders, psychotherapy involves more than the client talking. It involves the client “doing” something differently and making behavioural and/or cognitive changes.  Although talking can be a healthy coping strategy, such as talking things through with a friend, talking on its own is not an evidence-based intervention for any mental illness.

The term “talking therapy” misleads clients and gives them the expectation that the treatment for a psychological disorder will only require them to talk, when in fact it is the application of what is learnt in psychotherapy that results in improved functioning. Some consumers remain in ineffective “talking therapy” for longer than they should, believing that their attendance and talking, which usually feels good in the short term, is all that is needed to improve their symptoms.

As well as misleading clients, the term “talking therapy” is insulting to psychotherapy practitioners. We do not “dumb down” the names of other health therapies, for example, speech therapy, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy. Like psychotherapy, all these therapies involve active involvement from the client.

It is crucial that service providers and the media use accurate terms when referring to psychological interventions as it is the “doing” that is the critical change component of “psychotherapy” or “psychological therapy.”

Helen Stallman is a Clinical Psychologist and Hospital Research Foundation Fellow at the University of South Australia.  She has expertise in the development, evaluation, and dissemination of interventions to promote health and wellbeing. 

Competing interests: none declared