The story to live by

| Michaela Nesvarova

Ten years ago, UT professor Gerben Westerhof started developing ‘life review therapy’, a new method to treat depressive symptoms. Now, after trials and extensive reviews, he can positively say: ‘It is effective. It has shown significant results and it is very relevant for clinical work.’

In his article from last week, Westerhof presents the positive effects of life review therapy, which he co-developed together with another UT professor Ernst Bohlmeijer. ‘People who start the therapy are depressed and focused on negative events in their life. It is so nice to see them get new energy and find meaning in life again,’ says Westerhof, who is the Chair of the Department Psychology, Health, and Technology at the UT.

Finding the golden thread

The intervention, which Westerhof and Bohlmeijer originally called ‘The story to live by’, was specifically developed for treatment of depressive symptoms in older adults. ‘When people get older, they start to reflect on their life, on what has gone right and what has gone wrong. When they are depressed, they tend to focus on the negative aspects, on missed opportunities and mistakes. The therapy aims to create a more positive story of their life.’

People following the treatment are encouraged to become aware of all the good details in their lives and to look at negative events from a different perspective. ‘For instance, instead of concentrating on a bad moment, you can focus on the fact that you showed resilience in that difficult situation. The clients are encouraged to look at all their life events as a coherent story and to find a sort of a golden thread running through it. Eventually, they also write the next chapter of their life. You can see that people start seeing their life as meaningful again.’

The next step

Life review therapy has been tested in various forms. It has been applied in face to face sessions and as a digital intervention. ‘Both work,’ says the UT scientist. ‘In the new article, we have compared work from all over the world. Nine out of eleven studies showed significant effects and we can see that these effects last long.’ The method is already used in clinical practice, but Westerhof’s recent analysis now provides data to take it to the next step. ‘Health insurance companies do not cover a therapy until there is proof it works. Now we should have enough evidence for that.’

Use for young adults

The therapy was created to help older people, but with time the scientists realized it could also be applied to younger adults, explains professor Westerhof. ‘We have remodeled the therapy in collaboration with Saxion and developed a new intervention for young adults. Unlike the original life review therapy, this one focuses on identity development, specifically professional identity for social workers and psychologists. One of our PhD students is running a clinical trial on this and we have also included it in our Master programme of Positive Psychology and Technology as a tool that helps students to develop as psychologists.’