When is Psychotherapy Brief? Considering Sociodemographic Factors, Problem Complexity, and Problem Type in U.S. Adolescents

Madelaine R. Abel, Amanda Bianco, Renee Gilbert, Jessica L. Schleider*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Objective: When psychotherapy is brief (1–2 sessions), “early dropout”–defined as premature treatment discontinuation due to financial or structural barriers–is a commonly assumed cause. However, there are several possible reasons why treatment may be brief, including youth-level factors such as psychopathology complexity or problem type. Better characterizing whether factors beyond financial and structural barriers predict adolescents’ receipt of briefer (versus longer-term) treatment may guide efforts to retain specific youth in longer-term services–and disseminate intentionally brief interventions to youth potentially positioned to benefit. Method: Using data from the 2017 SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we examined whether sociodemographic disadvantage (minority race, low-income, government assistance), perceived problem type, and psychopathology complexity (1 versus multiple problem types) related to psychotherapy length (1–2 versus 3-24+ sessions) among adolescents receiving outpatient psychotherapy (N = 1,601; ages 12–17; 60.59% white; 64.50% female). Results: Among adolescents beginning outpatient psychotherapy, 23.36% ended treatment after 1–2 sessions. Psychopathology complexity predicted greater likelihood of receiving >2 sessions, after adjusting for specific problem type (χ2 = 75.14, p < .001, OR = 1.80). Further, although certain problem types (e.g., depression, anxiety, and anger control) were associated with increased likelihood of greater treatment length, these findings did not hold after accounting for psychopathology complexity. No sociodemographic factors significantly predicted treatment length. Conclusions: Structural and financial barriers alone may not explain when and why youth psychotherapy is brief. Additional factors, such as psychopathology complexity, may be important and potentially primary contributors to treatment duration among youth who access outpatient services. Future research may examine whether youth with less comorbidity differentially benefit from intentionally brief interventions, along with strategies for retaining youth who might benefit from longer-term care–such as those with multiple co-occurring problems–in treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
StateAccepted/In press - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology


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