Can cognitive behavior therapy help treat depression?

A primary goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to empower patients to recognize and take control of their own circumstances.
A primary goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to empower patients to recognize and take control of their own circumstances.
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Depression can be a paralyzing illness, as crippling as many physical ailments. But there are numerous treatments for depression, ranging from antidepressant medications to psychotherapies such as cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT.

Developed by Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960s, CBT is actually a combination of cognitive therapy, which focuses on a person's thoughts and how they affect moods, and behavioral therapy, which focuses on a person's actions and aims to "change unhealthy behavior patterns" that can affect their mental and physical wellbeing [source: NIMH].

In essence, CBT is a very direct, hands-on, goal-oriented approach to treating depression through psychotherapy. It's also being employed to treat a host of other mental conditions, including eating disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The objective of CBT is to help depression patients rewire their outlook by recognizing and understanding negative thought patterns, accurately evaluating the efficacy of those thoughts, and replacing them with more appropriate and healthy thought processes [source: WebMD]. As Max Ehrmann wrote in his famous prose poem, Desiderata: "Do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness." Conversely, CBT helps people "interpret their environment and interactions with others in a positive and realistic way" [source: NIMH].

CBT is designed to be a short-term approach to depression that focuses on specific, tangible problems. Patients are asked to define goals for each session and the subsequent week, while also recognizing longer-term goals.

The therapist, meanwhile, employs specific -- and structured -- educational tools to teach patients how to monitor and capture any negative thoughts or images. It's not the therapist's job to "cure" a patient's depression, but instead to provide a roadmap to recovery. Likewise, CBT patients are expected to take an active role in finding or developing solutions to their depression, in each session as well as between sessions.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, roughly two-thirds of depression patients are treated successfully with medications. But for patients averse to medications, CBT has been found to be an effective alternative treatment of mild-to-moderate depression, even with the use of antidepressants. However, CBT can also be used in conjunction with antidepressants to treat people suffering from major depression. And according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, CBT showed promise as a treatment for depression in teenagers, even if their parents also suffered from depression [source: US News].