How do psychologists treat depression? There is increasing acknowledgement of the need to treat mental health on a par with physical health, with as many as one in four people estimated to experience mental health difficulties in some way each year. Here is a breakdown of the most common types of therapy for depression.

Like all aspects of health and medicine, the treatment of depression has become more sophisticated over time. This increases the range of options and scope for approaches focused on individual needs.

Harvard Health Publishing notes there are many possible causes of depression, including physical, mental, genetic, stressful life events, medication and medical problems. The most effective treatment needs to respond holistically to a person’s issues.

What are the most common symptoms of depression?

Everyone feels down once in a while. Day to day, family, friends and others may be a good source of support. Where someone finds themselves unable to shake off a low mood over time, however, it could be a sign of depression.

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‘Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather’

Stephen Fry

Overcoming or managing depression can be a challenge. As with anything, this varies from person to person, perhaps from day to day. Those who experience mild depression may simply find everything takes more effort.

In it’s most serious form, it can be so bad as to become life-threatening, with the risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts. Organisations such as Mind and the NHS provide support on this.

According to Mind, the most common symptoms of depression include: 

• Feeling down, upset or tearful; feeling guilty or worthless, or perhaps empty and numb

• Feeling restless, agitated or irritable

• Feeling isolated and unable to relate to other people and/ or finding no pleasure in things that are usually enjoyable

• Feeling tired all the time

• Increased or new substance misuse, such as drugs or alcohol  

• At it’s most serious, it may lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair and/or self-harm or suicidal behaviour

When to seek a psychologist

Whether or not to seek help from a psychologist depends on how unwell someone is feeling and their preferences. Just as a cut should heal beneath a plaster, a low mood may ease thanks to a good chat or enjoying a hobby. But, just as a broken leg requires intervention, an entrenched low mood that won’t shift is a sign support is required.

‘The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say ‘my tooth is aching’ than to say ‘my heart is broken’

CS Lewis, The Problem Of Pain

Mind recommends people consider the range of potential treatments to decide what’s best for them. This could range from self-help to seeking a psychologist, amid various other options.


If someone feels their life or ability to cope is being adversely affected by depression or any other mental health difficulty, it may be self-help and healthy living are insufficient.

If someone is suffering from suicidal thoughts or clinical depression – such that usual life becomes difficult or impossible – help should definitely be sought through the Samaritans, for example.

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‘Since [I opened up about my emotions] it has been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life’

Michael Phelps

How do psychologists treat depression?

Psychologists use a wide range of approaches to treat depression. Four are summarised below.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is much like learning – or unlearning – a way of thinking. The NHS defines it as a “talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave”.

The idea is to equip someone with habits and skills to approach a situation or feeling differently and to improve coping skills by absorbing useful strategies.

An example might be positive distraction techniques, for example exercising or calling a friend when a low mood approaches.

Trauma-focused therapy

Trauma therapy aims to help someone come to terms with a particularly traumatic or difficult experience. This can be particularly relevant for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or who experienced childhood traumas.

The therapy aims to help someone overcome their feelings related to what’s generally termed acute trauma, arising from a specific incident; chronic trauma, arising from a series of incidents or experiences; or complex trauma, arising from multiple sources.

The aim is to reduce depression by improving self-management, coping skills and moods.

Positive psychology

This form of treatment seeks to move from a focus on negative experiences and pain to more positive experiences, traits or outlooks. Harvard Health Publishing notes it is most relevant as a complementary therapy rather than a technique on its own.

It notes one advocate, psychologist Martin EP Seligman, described its core philosophy as a “build what’s strong” approach to complement the “fix what’s wrong” approach of more traditional psychotherapy.

It is a relatively new approach, aimed at improving outlook and self-esteem, and is less available and proven as yet.

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Relational therapy

This psychotherapeutic approach focuses on a person’s relationship with those around them. Psychology Today notes it is sometimes termed ‘relational-cultural therapy’ and aims to improve relationships and well-being.

This approach is rooted in perspectives on culture and involves exploring approaches to “real and imagined relationships” with others. It is also a relatively unproven approach, and less widely offered as yet. 


New and emerging approaches such as these may lead to breakthroughs in the way psychologists treat depression, especially as evidence of their effectiveness emerges. They offer a chance for support that is more centred around a person and the support they need. It seems more work is needed at this stage, however, to ensure provision is meeting that person’s needs.

The opinions in this article are researched but don’t constitute medical advice. If you need or want to speak to someone about how you’re feeling, the Samaritans (116 123) are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year or visit Samaritans’ website by clicking here .

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