People More Likely to Complete Therapy Than Drug Treatment

Woman holding mug while looking out windowPeople seeking treatment for mental health conditions are more likely to quit treatment if it involves pharmacological remedies alone, according to a study published in the journal Psychotherapy. The study was a meta-analysis that looked at 186 previous studies of people pursuing treatment for mental health diagnoses.

Drug Remedies: Less Follow-Through Than Therapy?

The studies looked at people with mental health conditions who received only pharmacological treatments, only psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. In 182 of the 186 studies, researchers reported on participants who quit treatment before its completion. About a fifth (21.9%) of 17,891 patients prematurely ended treatment. Fifty-seven studies, which looked at a total of 6,693 participants, reported on participants who initially refused all or a portion of treatment. Treatment refusal rates went as high as 58%, with an average refusal rate of 8.2%.

Overall, participants were 1.2 times more likely to refuse or prematurely end treatment with medication than treatment with psychotherapy. The treatment noncompliance rate significantly varied with diagnosis. People with depression, panic issues, social anxiety, and anorexia or bulimia were more likely to refuse or cease drug treatment than people with other diagnoses.

The study emphasizes that research on mental health treatments often focuses only on success rates—not the rate of compliance with treatment. The large number of participants who drop out of treatment before it is completed suggests providers can do more to encourage treatment participation.

The study’s authors say shared decision-making is one important option to consider because this approach prioritizes individual wishes rather than imposing the provider’s preferred method of treatment.

Drugs vs. Therapy for Mental Health Conditions

Studies suggest pharmacological remedies may be more accessible than psychotherapy. For example, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) 2016 Vital Signs report shows 75% of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) take medication. Only about half of children with Medicaid and 40% with employer-sponsored insurance receive psychotherapy for ADHD, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavior therapy as the first line of treatment for ADHD.


  1. ADHD in young children. (2016, May 3). Retrieved from
  2. Swift, J. K., Greenberg, R. P., Tompkins, K. A., & Parkin, S. R. (2017). Treatment refusal and premature termination in psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and their combination: A meta-analysis of head-to-head comparisons. Psychotherapy, 54(1), 47-57. doi:10.1037/pst0000104

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Celena

    March 14th, 2017 at 2:36 PM

    It is downright maddening to me that the first course of treatment in our country always seems to be pharmacological rather than trying something like behavioral or talk therapy that would be much less invasive and also apparently more successful??? It drives me crazy that we always have this tendency to want to fix ANYTHING with a pill instead of trying something that might be a little more out of our comfort zone.

  • April

    March 17th, 2017 at 9:48 AM

    What I think would be the most beneficial would be if they did both treatments at the same time, talk or behavioral therapy while also undergoing rehabilitation. That might make the impact that much greater than it would have been simply engaging in just one or the other.

  • qc

    January 13th, 2020 at 7:02 PM

    I have bipolar II with a side of TBI symptoms (including a tremor problem that means “I guess I get to be manic on Depakote because everything else gives me tremor problems that are worse to deal with”) and a ton of chronic pain/physical stuff too. I lucked out with my psychiatrist because he *will* actually listen to my issues without rushing me, but that is NOT the same as actual talk therapy and there are times that I’m pretty sure having a pro to talk about the “care fatigue” stuff that comes up with “this can’t be *fixed* just sort of controlled plus most of my friends and family have chronic health stuff too” has been *quality* of life-saving. Assuming you can find a therapist you can afford and trust, I would rec the “drugs AND therapy” route because it’s almost synergistically better in my opinion.

  • Jennifer

    October 29th, 2020 at 6:55 AM

    I’m just curious about this site.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.