Single-session therapy is a way of thinking about therapy and is also a way of delivering therapy services. While it can mean that the client has one session, it can also mean that the client can have further sessions to meet their therapeutic needs.
Modern-day single-session therapy developed from Moshe Talmon's experiences, an Israeli psychologist, who, while working at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, followed up 200 clients who only had one session with Talmon when he expected them to have more. Fearing that he would discover that he had not helped these clients, Talmon (1990) found, to his surprise that 78% of the clients did not return for a second session because they had gotten what they wanted from the first. However, and this is the point, they could have returned for a second session if they wanted to, and if they had, Talmon would have seen them.
Talmon (1990) published a book on his experiences of working at Kaiser Permanente. Talmon (2008) has said, "I wanted to call it 'Once Upon a Therapy' because I wanted mostly to deal with the fact that what happens in therapy is different than what you plan or you think, or you say will happen in therapy". However, Talmons's publishers did not consider it sufficiently catchy and used the title 'Single Session Therapy: Maximising the Effect of the First (and Often Only) Therapeutic Encounter' instead. As this title shows, Talmon's purpose was not to establish something called 'single-session therapy', but to organise therapy so that the client may not need further therapy sessions after their first session rather than exclude them from having additional sessions.
Research has shown that many people come to therapy and stay for only one session (e.g. Brown & Jones, 2005). It would be nice if we as therapists could predict the clients who would have one session and those who would return for more. However, the reality is that we are not good at making such predictions (Young, 2018). Given this, Talmon and others have argued that we should organise the first session to maximise the possibility that a client gets what they want from the session and if they require no further help, that is fine. However, if they need further help, that is fine too, and they can have it. It follows from this that in single-session therapy, the therapist aims to get therapy off the ground immediately rather than begin the session with the more usual practices of taking a case history carrying out a full assessment or doing a case formulation.
When therapy services are organised so that all incoming clients are offered and accept single-session therapy, it transpires that about 50% require no further help. The remaining 50% who need additional help are offered this even though they have received single-session therapy. If single-session therapy truly meant that clients were offered and could only have one session, then half of those requesting help would be denied the help that they need. Single-session therapy, then, is a way of delivering therapy that seeks to help clients in one session but allows them access to further help. It thus aims to help all clients, not just 50% of them.
My view is that the name of the therapy is less important than what it offers in practice. If people are not happy with the term 'single-session therapy', they should be free to use a different name. Whatever term they use it is vital for them to precisely describe what is on offer and what is not on offer.
Brown, G.S., & Jones, E.R. (2005). Implementation of a feedback system in a managed care environment: What are patients teaching us? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 187-198.