Brief Therapy

What is Brief Therapy?

Brief Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is short-term in nature and typically focuses on solutions rather than problems. In doing so, the counselor utilizes a collaborative relationship between the counselor and client. The aim is to emphasize students' strengths and to help them to work actively towards well-defined goals. Brief Therapy is often about bringing successes into the client's awareness, which tends to increase hopefulness.

Why is it a good approach?

Many clients find that Brief Therapy helps to keep the meetings focused and productive. The time-limited nature of counseling can encourage the client and therapist to work together effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, brief therapy has been shown to be suitable for a wide variety of clients and problems, such as anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, stress, and lifestyle changes.

How many sessions do student get?

A single course of brief therapy at the UCC is typically up to 10 sessions.  

Similar to how a primary care doctor will assess someone with the flu or a twisted ankle as needing very different levels of care than someone with chronic pain or cancer, the UCC counselor will first discuss the issues with a student and then look at appropriate treatments. Brief therapy is one option, along with a referral for longer term or intensive therapy, self-guided resources, psychological testing, psychiatric medication, disability services and/or other resources.

For issues that are appropriate to brief therapy — which include many student issues — the 10-session limit provides a timeline to focus treatment and to assess progress.  Many issues can resolve in less than 10 sessions, but sometimes further care is needed.  

Students may return to the UCC after a course of brief therapy if they have a future issue for which they need help. Once again, the UCC will assess the issues at hand. If the issues can be addressed in brief therapy, we will assist with another course of brief therapy. However, if the issues are part of a longer-term mental health issue, a referral for longer-term care is appropriate.   

Do most universities have session limits?

Many institutions of higher education have counseling centers with session limits and the vast majority limit their scope of care since they cannot provide comprehensive intensive mental health services across all types of mental health issues. For our size institution, the clear majority of institutions nationally have defined session limits, and others sometimes limit their services in other ways.

Brief counseling is widely used in the mental health field and has become the most preferred mode of individual service delivery nationally in college counseling (Cooper & Archer, 1999).

How often do students reach the session limit?

In many cases students only need a few sessions and don’t reach the limit.  The average number of sessions annually is about 5. A large majority of students, about 75% of those who come to the UCC annually, are served at the UCC without a referral to external service. Those who are referred might still come to the UCC for group or urgent service, or return in the future if they have an issue that fits the scope of care.  

What if someone reaches the session limit, or is not a fit for the UCC scope of service?

We provide active assistance and support through Treatment Coordination in connecting students to external services that are appropriate for their care needs. From the beginning we do our best to be transparent about the strengths and limitations of the UCC service, and to discuss how things are progressing and whether longer-term care might be appropriate.   

What research supports brief therapy?

Research has shown that various forms of time-limited therapy yield very good results. For example, a comprehensive study on solution-focused brief therapy found that it had a positive effect in less time and satisfied the client's need for autonomy more than other forms of psychotherapy (Stams, et al., 2006 as cited in Bannick, 2007).

When and why did the UCC change to brief therapy?

We adopted the brief therapy model of care at the UCC in the spring 2016 semester in order to reallocate counseling services by spreading resources in the most beneficial way, so that we can serve more students with quicker access. As a result, we have been able to reduce our wait times to initial appointments, as well as reduce the wait for ongoing counseling appointments.

What if a student needs treatment beyond brief therapy?

As described above, brief therapy is appropriate in many circumstances. However, for students who may benefit from longer-term, more frequent, or more specialized counseling, the UCC works to coordinate access to resources in the local off-campus community. More information about the UCC's Scope of Service is available online. Consideration may be given about a student's resources in deciding whether, when and where to refer to off-campus services. The UCC has an excellent database of community agencies and individual providers, so that a referral can be individualized to the student's insurance, location, type of issue or other criteria.

How to get the most out of it?

To get the most out of a brief therapy experience, clients are encouraged to think about their goals, about how they would like things to be different. Clients are also encouraged to be willing to engage in work. With the help of the counselor, clients will explore ways that will bring them within reach of their goals. This also involves a willingness to devote energy to out-of-session work that the counselor may recommend.


Bannink, F.P. (2007). Solution-focused brief therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 37(2), 87-94.

Cooper, S & Archer, J. (1999) Brief therapy in college counseling and mental health. Journal of American College Health, 48(1), 21-29.

Stams, G.J., Dekovic, M., Buist, K., & de Vries, L. (2006). Effectiviteit van oplossingsgerichte korte therapie; een meta-analyse (Efficiency of solution-focused brief therapy: a meta-analysis). Gedragstherapie (Behavior Therapy), 39(2), 81-94