Harvard Women's Health Watch

Behavioral activation therapy effectively treats depression, study finds

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for depression. However, it can be expensive, and qualified therapists are often in short supply. One component of that technique is behavioral activation therapy (BA), which centers on changing a person's behavior rather than the way he or she thinks. As such, mental health workers without advanced degrees in medicine or psychology can teach this technique. A team of British investigators decided to test whether BA alone is as effective as CBT.

The researchers recruited 440 adults with major depressive disorder. All were assigned to undergo 20 sessions of therapy over 16 weeks; half were randomly assigned to CBT administered by certified psychological therapists and the other half to BA under the direction of junior mental health workers. Those in the BA group were encouraged to become more engaged in activities that had once seemed appealing to them, such as reading, exercise, volunteer work, or just spending time with friends.

Both groups were evaluated for depression when they entered the study and again six months, 12 months, and 18 months after the therapy ended. The results were almost identical for both groups, with two-thirds of each group reporting a reduction of depressive symptoms of at least 50%. The study was published online July 22, 2016, by The Lancet.

Many mental health facilities now offer BA. If you suffer from depression and need help engaging with the world, ask your doctor about BA.