Milieu therapy (MT) is a therapeutic treatment approach for mental health conditions. This therapeutic modality relies heavily on the use of someone’s current environment and immediate surroundings. The process typically combines the benefits of group therapy and an individualized treatment approach. This combination helps build a supportive community while also addressing unique concerns.
MT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on social environment and emphasizes empathy, compassion, and understanding. It’s known to effectively treat mental health conditions and socio-emotional challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and emotional issues.
Keep reading to learn more about milieu therapy. We’re looking at this form of mental health care, how it works, and what conditions it can potentially treat. We’ll also dive into the key elements and how to get started.
Therapeutic milieu techniques are used in group therapy settings. There, people work with others who share similar experiences or challenges. The social interaction structure allows for a safe space and environment, which is beneficial in developing healthy thought and behavior patterns.
Essentially, a milieu therapist works off the principle that every component of our experience offers growth and healing opportunities. It affords people the time and energy to focus on learning and practicing skills that’ll serve them for the rest of their lives.
In milieu therapy, everyday interactions are staged so people can practice the tools they’re learning. Also called milieu work or milieu teaching, MT relies heavily on the environment and people around to help treat mental health issues. It’s based on the idea that our surroundings strongly influence our behavior.
“Milieu therapy is a type of therapy where an individual’s person’s surroundings help foster healthier ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. With milieu therapy, a person spends most of their time in a homey environment and interacts with other people as they do their daily activities. You may attend group or individual therapy sessions as part of your schedule.”
MT is a flexible solution that’s generally combined with other types of therapy and treatment forms. For example, it can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) elements. CBT is a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy), and the types of CBT focus on first identifying, then changing unhealthy thought and behavior patterns.
MT is also used with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The basic premise of ACT is that people will only change their behaviors if they believe they have control over them. Once gaining a sense of control over life, some people feel more empowered when making choices about their lives.
Milieu therapy can effectively treat a wide range of mental health conditions. Studies have shown efficacy in treating schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, among other behavioral or psychological conditions, including:
Depression and generalized anxiety disorder
Substance use and abuse (including alcoholism)
Eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Milieu therapy is a specific type of psychotherapy that relies on creating safe, structured environments. Milieu therapists subscribe to the theory that the environment can influence mental health. Thus, paying attention to the factors in your surroundings can positively affect your mental health and well-being. Multiple elements of MT contribute to its success.
Supportive and therapeutic relationships
A therapeutic relationship is a connection with another person who helps your healing or growth. These meaningful relationships allow you to feel safe, understood, and able to communicate honestly and effectively. In MT, connections are made with therapists and anyone else who can be a source of support.
A therapeutic relationship is built by connecting with supportive people who understand what you’re going through. They don’t judge or criticize you for how you feel. Instead, they try to help you work through obstacles. They have faith in what could be possible for you — not just now but also down the line.
A safe, structured environment
Milieu therapy must take place in a safe, structured environment to reach the desired milieu treatment goals. This is especially necessary for people who’ve been, for example, living in unstable circumstances or struggling with addiction. When creating daily routines and exercises, a therapist will consider your history, needs, wants, and abilities.
Social interaction is an essential aspect of mental health. In MT, activities allow you to practice social skills and build connections. Some exercises are structured, like group therapy topics or occupational training. Others, though, may be unstructured and involve a greater degree of choice (e.g., recreational groups).
“In Milieu therapy, the focus is on how an individual interacts, collaborates, and engages with others around them. When a conflict comes up they can also learn healthier ways of coping and dealing with it. They also engage in individual and group therapy to help them gain insight and develop a positive perspective.”
– Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC
A focus on self care
What is self-care? It is an integral part of milieu therapy that includes:
Personal hygiene (e.g., bathing, dressing, grooming)
Individual schedules (e.g., setting priorities and establishing plans)
Organizational skills development (e.g., developing routines that help you move more quickly through your day)
Life skills development (i.e., practicing skills that’ll help you be more independent)
Daily routine and structure
Milieu therapy is a specialized form of therapy that uses your daily routine and structure to help you work through psychological issues.
A safe environment helps you feel comfortable and confident, so you can focus on your treatment plan rather than worrying about what might happen later.
Milieu therapy can be an effective treatment option for mild to moderate symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Success can vary and will depend on each individual’s specific needs.
It’s important to note that milieu therapy isn’t for everyone. Like any form of treatment, some will respond well to MT, while others may not. When used to treat various conditions, MT can improve the ability to tackle new skills.
Some research has shown that combining MT with other therapeutic modalities can further enhance benefits. For example, in one study, adding physical activity to treatment plans was particularly effective. Additional research suggests that MT can be extremely useful in enhancing quality of life for seniors and the elderly.
MT might be able to offer the following benefits:
Sense of safety
Instant, helpful feedback
Improved ability to navigate stress
Enhanced social skills
If you’re considering milieu therapy, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional about whether or not it might help reduce or relieve symptoms you’re experiencing.
Are you thinking about starting therapy? Our online therapy platform makes getting help simple and convenient. While Talkspace doesn’t provide group therapy formats, you can still reap the benefits of online therapy in a 1:1 setting.
Milieu therapy can be an effective treatment option for many mental health conditions. Coupled with individual therapy at Talkspace, it can change your life. If you feel like your symptoms are interfering with your ability to function normally, talk to a Talkspace therapist. Together, you can decide if a holistic therapy approach might be right for you — and if so, how best to get started.
Bhat S, Rentala S, Bevinahalli Nanjegowda R, Belsiyal Chellappan X. Effectiveness of milieu therapy in reducing conflicts and containment rates among schizophrenia patients. Investigación y Educación en Enfermería. 2020;38(1). doi:10.17533/udea.iee.v38n1e06. https://revistas.udea.edu.co/index.php/iee/article/view/341297. Accessed November 13, 2022.
Borge L, Røssberg JI, Sverdrup S. Cognitive milieu therapy and physical activity: Experiences of mastery and learning among patients with dual diagnosis. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 2013;20(10):932-942. doi:10.1111/jpm.12090. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23701474/. Accessed November 13, 2022.
Oprya Y, Pustovoyt M. Milieu therapy as a method for improving the quality of life of the old people. Psychosomatic Medicine and General Practice. 2021;6(1). doi:10.26766/pmgp.v6i1.293. https://e-medjournal.com/index.php/psp/article/view/293. Accessed November 13, 2022.