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Treatment plans are an important part of your behavioral health practice. Done well, they can help set your clients up for better outcomes. One of the most important aspects of the process is setting mental health treatment plan goals and objectives. You and your client should work together to identify the long-term goals of therapy, and to maintain open communication about the objectives you’ll use to reach them.

The concept of SMART goals can be valuable here. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. In other words, your treatment plan goals should be clearly-defined, able to be measured, and realistic. Vague or open-ended goals are usually not as helpful as SMART goals.

Differentiating Mental Health Treatment Plan Goals and Objectives

The words “goal” and “objective” are not interchangeable in this context, and it’s important to understand the difference as you begin a treatment plan. Goals are broad, overarching outcomes that provide direction and purpose. Objectives are smaller, measurable steps that contribute to achieving goals.

In other words, goals provide the big-picture vision for treatment outcomes. They might include the overall well-being of the patient once treatment is complete, the reduction of mental health symptoms, and/or how you hope the patient will rate on outcome measures. Goals will be measured over time, and the presence or absence of progress toward them will indicate whether treatment is working or whether a different course of treatment is needed.

Objectives are the action steps you take to reach the big-picture goals. Often, they are behaviors or practices that you ask your clients to practice in between treatment sessions. Clients can meet objectives but still not be moving toward their goals, which is important to keep in mind when assessing treatment progress.

Examples of Goals vs. Objectives

If the difference between goals and objectives feels too abstract, consider the following examples to help shed light on the distinction.

Imagine you have a client with generalized anxiety disorder, and you need to differentiate between the goals of treatment and the treatment objectives. Here’s an example what that might look like:

Goal: Reduce symptoms of anxiety (as measured by the ASQ assessment for anxiety) to improve overall quality of life.

Objectives: Within the first four sessions, patient will learn how to identify and challenge irrational distressing thoughts. Patient will continue practicing thought-challenging between appointments, as well as engaging in 15 minutes of body scans and meditation per day.

Here is another example, this time for a patient with OCD:

Goal: Improve OCD symptoms to reduce their impact on daily functioning.

Objectives: Practice exposure to the triggering fear and refrain from engaging in compulsion during therapy sessions. Client will continue this exposure/response prevention therapy for at least 15 minutes per day for the next two weeks.


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Why SMART Criteria Matter

Research suggests that when patients don’t feel they have clear goals in therapy, their treatment outcomes tend to be worse. It also sheds light on the importance of creating treatment goals early in the therapy process, as patients who discussed goals early on tended to have more clarity about them.

Using specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to gain clarity helps the treatment planning process in several ways.

  • Makes it easier to develop action steps. SMART goals tend to be more concrete, and concrete goals are easier to develop concrete objectives for.
  • Sets your client up for success. One of the characteristics of SMART goals is “achievable.” You want clients to tackle challenges that they are capable of managing.
  • Improves communication with client. Specific and measurable goals are easy to “check in” on with your client. They give you both language for where the treatment process needs to go, and whether it is working.
  • Creates accountability. Clear goals that you frequently talk about will naturally foster accountability. The client will feel accountable to put their objectives into practice on a regular basis, and you will feel accountable to stay abreast of progress or stagnation in the patient’s journey.
  • Aids in assessing progress. Many people would say they entered mental health treatment to “get better” from a mental health standpoint. But “better” is a subjective state, and can mean different things to different clients. SMART goals force you and the client to spell out what change they want to see—and thus make it easier to track their progress.

Leveraging Prebuilt Templates for Treatment Plans

If capturing concrete goals and objectives in a treatment plan feels demanding on top of everything else treatment plans must document, consider utilizing a library of prebuilt, evidence-based templates to speed and simplify the process. Composing treatment plans from a template is quicker than writing them from scratch, and as long as you can customize the plan to meet individual clients’ needs, it shouldn’t impede your ability to tailor each plan to the situation.

Templates prompt you to capture all the important details of your patient: their demographics, their symptoms/diagnosis, and your plan. They also promote consistency in patient records so that sharing information between providers is easier.

In short, templates make it easier to create the nuts and bolts of the plan, so you can focus more on patient goals.

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Ensuring Clinicians Set Effective Mental Health Treatment Plan Goals and Objectives

Setting goals comes with inherent challenges, and you may have to trouble-shoot your process to get the best results. Many clients, if asked about their goals, will offer abstract answers like “feeling better” or “improving mood,” and clinicians may find themselves having to guide the process of creating more specific aims. Complex mental health challenges and co-occurring conditions can also present an obstacle to goal-setting, as therapist and client must untangle what to prioritize in treatment. Capturing the full complexity of a patient’s challenges can be much easier said than done.

Utilize strategies to stay on target with goals that truly guide the treatment process:

  1. Use SMART goals. Crafting SMART goals forces you to cut through vague abstractions to actionable steps.
  2. Utilize outcome measures. Outcome scoring measures like the PHQ-9 for depression or the ASQ for anxiety help patients pin down symptoms and experiences that can feel confusing in the moment. Because outcome scoring is measurable, it can be used as a concrete goal.
  3. Take part in regular mental health training and continuing education. It’s important to stay on top of emerging best practices and research in mental health, for your treatment planning skills and everything else.
  4. Seek peer review on treatment planning. Take advantage of the learned experiences and strategies of other providers when it comes to sharpening your goal-setting skills.
  5. Engage in ongoing assessment and adjustment of goals as treatment progresses. Check in with your clients on a regular basis about progress toward goals. This keeps the treatment journey focused and can alert you if changes need to be made to the goals.


Clear goals and objectives are very important in mental health treatment planning, because they set you and your client up for success. If you haven’t already, consider implementing SMART criteria in your goal-setting process, and utilize prebuilt templates to help maximize your time and improve the odds of positive outcomes. Remember to communicate clearly with your clients about their goals, and check in on their progress regularly.

With these best practices in mind, your clients will be on their way to progress and healing—one goal at a time!