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Premature termination of outpatient psychotherapy: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes

Kristin N Anderson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Premature termination is a pervasive barrier to effective implementation of outpatient psychotherapy that frequently results in decreased treatment gains for clients and lowered morale for therapists. Unfortunately, despite its high prevalence and cost, premature termination remains poorly understood. The current study addressed some gaps in the literature using a national online survey design that permitted investigation of a broader range of potential predictors, exploration of more specific reasons for premature termination, and examination of longer term treatment outcomes than has been possible in most previous research. Participants were 278 workers from’s Mechanical Turk, an online labor market regularly used for social science research. Participants completed an online survey about their treatment history, their most recent outpatient therapy experience and therapist, termination status, reasons for terminating prematurely (if applicable), treatment satisfaction, therapeutic outcome, and demographics. Over half of the participants reported prematurely terminating their most recent episode of therapy. Results revealed that premature termination of previous therapy episodes, a weak therapeutic alliance, and primary or comorbid depression were the best predictors of premature termination. These predictors were highly accurate in distinguishing premature terminators from treatment completers. Results indicated that being a woman, identifying as non-heterosexual, seeking treatment from a hospital outpatient psychiatric clinic, and having a therapist low in perceived multicultural competence were also associated with increased risk of premature termination. However, these predictors of premature termination did not remain significant when controlling for other variables. The three most common reasons for premature termination were environmental obstacles, dissatisfaction with services, and lack of motivation for therapy. Finally, with respect to therapeutic outcomes, treatment completers reported greater problem improvement, greater satisfaction with therapy, and less current functional impairment than premature terminators. However, contrary to expectations, no differences in outcomes were found between early premature terminators (five or fewer sessions) and late premature terminators (at least six sessions). Clinical implications, limitations of the study, and recommendations for future research are also discussed.

Subject Area

Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Anderson, Kristin N, "Premature termination of outpatient psychotherapy: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI3703709.