The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
Patient Experience of Negative Effects of Psychotherapy
Crawford, M.J., Thana, L., Farquharson, L., Palmer, L., Hancock, E.... Parry, G.D. (2016). Patient experience of negative effects of psychological treatment: results of a national survey. British Journal of Psychiatry, 208, 260-265.
There is lots of evidence that psychotherapy is effective for a wide variety of disorders. However, a number of studies report that between 5% and 10% of patients report higher levels of symptoms following treatment compared to when they started. Although the side effects and negative outcomes in pharmacological treatment studies are routinely reported, negative outcomes in psychological treatment studies are rarely reported and investigated. In this very large survey, Crawford and colleagues analysed data from an audit of state funded psychological therapies for depression and anxiety in England and Wales. Adult patients from 220 centers were invited to complete an anonymous service-user questionnaire that asked about their experiences of the processes and outcomes of psychotherapy. Some of the questions asked if clients experienced a “lasting bad effect” from the treatment. Nearly 15,000 individuals responded to the survey. More than half (51%) were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and most clients received only one treatment, which was predominantly individual therapy. Most (74.35%) received fewer than 10 sessions. Of the respondents, 763 (5.23%) reported that therapy had a “lasting bad effect”, and an additional 7.70% were “unsure” whether they experienced a lasting bad effect. People over 65 years old were less likely to have a lasting negative effect, and those from minority ethnic groups and non-heterosexuals were more likely to report lasting bad effects. In addition, those who did not know what type of therapy they received were more likely to have lasting bad effects.
A substantial minority of patients reported lasting negative effects from their psychological treatment. With approximately a million Canadians receiving outpatient psychological treatment of one form or another each year, these findings imply that thousands of patients could have experienced a lasting negative effect. The findings suggest that psychotherapists need to be highly sensitive to cultural and ethnic minority issues and acquire cultural competence. The same is true when treating non-heterosexuals. Clinicians should also make sure to provide sufficient information to patients about the type of treatment they are receiving as part of the informed consent process. Attending to these issues may reduce the likelihood of therapeutic alliance ruptures that may be related to lasting negative effects.
Nonimproved Patients View Their Psychotherapy
Werbart, A., Von Below, C., Brun, J., & Gunnarsdottir, H. (2015). “Spinning one’s wheels”: Nonimproved patients view their psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 25, 546-564.
The rate of patients who experience no change after receiving psychotherapy is about 35% to 40% in clinical trials. Further, about 5% to 10% get worse after treatment. So, in spite of the fact that psychotherapy is effective in general, a sizeable minority of patients do not benefit. There is also evidence that patients’ perception of therapy differs greatly from their therapists’. Therapists are often inaccurate in identifying or predicting patient outcomes, and patients’ judgements tend to better correspond with treatment outcomes. In this study, Werbart and colleagues evaluated outcomes of 134 patients who had elevated symptoms. The average age of patients was 22.4 years (range 18 – 26), so many were young adults. Almost all received a diagnosis ranging from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or personality disorders. The predominant treatment was psychoanalytic. Of the 134 patients, many experienced large improvements by the end of treatment. However, 20 patients remained clinically distressed and did not improve or deteriorated after receiving psychotherapy. The authors interviewed these 20 patients at termination and at three-year follow-up using a semi-structured interview. The interview asked patients for their experiences of therapy. The researchers transcribed the interviews and coded the transcripts using a known method of qualitative analysis called “grounded theory”. Three main themes related to poor outcomes were identified by these patients. (1) The therapy or therapist – in which: therapists were perceived by patients as passive or reticent, patients felt distant from the therapist, and patients did not understand the therapy method. (2) Outcomes of therapy – in which: the patient expected more from therapy, and symptoms and emotional problems remained in the “impaired” range at the end of treatment. (3) The impact of life circumstances – referring to negative impacts of events outside of the therapy.
This is a small but unique study that interviewed patients who did not benefit from psychotherapy about their experiences of the treatment and therapist. Nonimproved patients described their therapist generally as too passive, distant, and uninvolved in the work of therapy. These patients described difficulty understanding the therapeutic method and the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The findings highlight the importance of the therapeutic alliance. To have a good alliance, patients and therapists have to agree on the tasks of therapy, agree on the goals that the therapy should achieve for the patient, and there should be a mutual liking or bond between patient and therapist. Those patients whose therapists pay attention to and foster a good alliance are more likely to experience good outcomes.
Patients’ Experiences of Clinicians’ Crying During Psychotherapy
Tritt, A., Kelly, J., & Waller, G. (2015). Patients’ experiences of clinicians’ crying during psychotherapy for eating disorders. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 373-380.
Psychotherapy can be an emotionally intensive experience for both patients and therapists. In a large survey, more than 70% of therapists reported having cried in therapy, and 30% cried during the past month. Therapists who cried almost always saw the experience as positive or neutral (99.2%) for the patient and the therapeutic relationship. Do clients feel the same way about therapists who cry? In this study, Tritt and colleagues surveyed 188 adult patients with an eating disorder who were recently in psychotherapy. Of those, 107 (56.9%) reported that their therapist had cried during therapy. There was no association between frequency of therapist crying and therapist age, patient diagnosis, or type of psychotherapy (i.e., manual-based or not). Therapists who cried a moderate amount were seen by clients as having a positive demeanor (i.e., happy, firm, consistent), whereas therapists who cried more extremely were rated by clients as having a more negative demeanor (i.e., anxious, angry, bored). If therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a positive demeanor, then therapist crying had a positive impact on therapy. That is, clients reported a greater respect for the therapist, greater willingness to express emotions, and higher willingness to undertake therapy in the future. However, if therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a negative demeanor, then therapist crying had a negative impact on therapy. That is, clients were less willing to express emotions in therapy and to undertake therapy in the future. Further, if the therapist who cried was rated as having a negative demeanor, the client experienced more self blame, assumed that there was something wrong in the therapist’s life, and that the therapist and client did not share the same perspective on the client’s life and treatment.
This small but unique and interesting survey sheds some light on clients’ experiences of therapists who cry during therapy. More than half of clients experienced their therapist crying during therapy. In contrast to surveys of therapists who tend to evaluate therapist crying as exclusively positive or neutral, this survey found that many but not all clients experienced therapist crying as positive. It depends on how the client perceives the therapist as a person. Therapists who are seen by clients as happy, firm, and consistent may assume that patients will experience their crying as a positive indicator of the therapeutic relationship. However, therapists who are seen by clients as anxious, bored, or angry cannot assume that clients will see their tears as being positive for therapy.
Deliberate Practice in Highly Effective Therapists
Chow, D. L., Miller, S. D., Seidel, J. A., Kane, R. T., Thornton, J. A., & Andrews, W. P. (2015). The role of deliberate practice in the development of highly effective psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 337.
In 2014, Tracey and colleagues caused a stir when they claimed that there was no evidence of expertise in psychotherapy (see my July, 2014 blog). They defined expertise as increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience – and they concluded that psychotherapy research has not provided evidence that therapist performance improves with experience. The issue is important because differences between therapists account for over 5% of patient outcomes. This seems small, but it is larger than variance in outcomes accounted for by the use of empirically supported treatments (0% - 4%), and almost as large as the variance accounted for by client-rated alliance (5% - 15%). Across a wide variety of professions (e.g., music, medicine, chess, sports), professionals’ engagement in deliberate practice results in improvement and superior performance. However, there is little evidence of this in psychotherapy. In this article by Chow and colleagues, the authors look specifically at “deliberate practice” defined as individualized training activities to improve one’s performance through repetition and refinement. To be effective, deliberate practice has to be focused on achieving specific targets and guided by conscious monitoring of outcomes over a long period of time. The authors collected a sample of 69 therapists who worked across a number of organizations and practice areas, and these therapists provided data related to 4,850 patients. Seventeen of the 69 therapists who treated 1,632 clients also provided data on professional development activities. Therapists were multidisciplinary (i.e., counsellors, psychologists, marital therapists, social workers, psychotherapists) with an average of over 8 years of experience, who worked mainly in private practice or within the national health service in the U.K., and who primarily treated adult patients with depression or anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes were measured repeatedly with a valid standardized scale, and deliberate practice was self reported by therapists using a measure that asked about the frequency and time therapists engaged in 25 activities outside of work aimed at improving therapeutic skills. On average, clients improved by the end of treatment and the effect was large (d = 1.22). As expected therapists differed in their patient outcomes (i.e., some therapists were reliably more effective than others). Therapist demographic variables, theoretical orientation, years of experience, and practice setting were not related to patient outcomes. However, the amount of time in deliberate practice activities was associated with a reduction in client distress. Compared to the less effective therapists (2.62 hrs/wk in deliberate practice), the best performing therapists (7.39 hrs/wk in deliberate practice) spent about 2.81 times more time on deliberate practice. Therapists rated the following deliberate practice activities as the most relevant to their patients’ outcomes: reviewing challenging cases, attending training workshops, reflecting on past sessions, and reflecting on what to do in future sessions.
Although this is a single study with a relatively small sample of therapists, it is one of those rare studies to assess the effects of therapist deliberate practice on patient outcomes. As is the case with other professions, reviewing one’s performance can play an important role in identifying errors, altering course, and remediating problems. As Tracey and colleagues indicated, therapists need good quality information in order to learn from their errors and make adjustments so that clients can improve. Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes especially for at-risk cases. Chow and colleagues go further to suggest targeted learning by using standardized clients within training and supervision contexts. Deliberate practice is not only for newer or less experienced therapists, since experienced therapists also vary in their ability to engage and help clients. Highly effective therapists spend more time engaging in activities outside of their practice specifically aimed at improving their performance.
Psychotherapy Reduces Hospital Costs and Physician Visits
Abbass, A., Kisely, S., Rasic, D., Town, J.M., & Johansson, R. (2015). Long-term healthcare cost reduction with Intensive Short-term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in tertiary psychiatric care. Journal of Psychiatric Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.03.001
Several years ago Lazar (2010) published a book detailing the cost-effectiveness of psychotherapy for a variety of disorders. That is, her systematic review found that on most economic indicators (lost income, decreased disability, decreased health utilization) psychotherapy resulted in an immediate cost reduction over and above the cost of the treatment. In this study from Halifax, Canada, Abbass and colleagues looked at the effects of psychotherapy, specifically of Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), on the long-term reduction in hospital costs and physician visits. Abass and colleagues argue that adverse childhood events are an important determinant of adult mental health problems and of increased costs to the health system likely because of the consequence of problems with emotion regulation. Psychotherapies like ISTDP specifically address issues that are a consequence of childhood maltreatment and so might reduce some of the consequent health care costs. Abbass and colleagues provided ISTDP to 890 patients in the Halifax health care system who were referred to the psychotherapy service from emergency departments, physicians, and mental health providers. These patients’ outcomes were compared to 192 patients not seen by the clinic for various reasons. Most common diagnoses of the total sample were: somatoform disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and depressive disorder. Participant completed measures of psychological distress, and the research team were able to access provincial health usage data tracked over 3 years. Fifty eight therapists of various skill levels (psychiatrists, psychologists, family physicians, trainees) provided ISTDP. The average patient attended 7.3 sessions which cost $708 (estimated by salaries in 2006). Patients receiving psychotherapy had physician and hospital costs that decreased from $3,224 to $4759 in Canadian dollars per year over three years (again in 2006 dollars). Patients in the control condition not receiving ISTDP showed health care costs that increased from $368 to $2,663 per year. These trajectories of health care costs were significantly different. Yearly physician and health care costs for patients prior to being treated with ISTDP were greater than those of the general Canadian population, but 3 years post ISTDP their health care costs were less than the general Canadian population. In addition, compared to control patients those treated with psychotherapy showed a significant reduction in psychological distress.
This study by Abbass and colleagues demonstrates that short term psychotherapy provided to a broad range of patients and targeting health and illness behaviors related to problems with emotion regulation can reduce health care costs. These reductions in hospital and physician visits occurred in the short term and were sustained over several years. Some patients may require longer treatment, but the evidence suggests that short term interventions should be tried first.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Burnout in Psychotherapists in Five Countries
Puig, A., Yoon, E., Callueng, C., An, S., & Lee, S. M. (2014). Burnout syndrome in psychotherapists: A comparative analysis of five nations. Psychological Services, 11(1), 87-96.
Psychotherapists can experience severe stress when working with some clients. The stress can be the result of work conditions like budget cuts and increased therapy caseloads, and from characteristics of the work itself like remaining compassionate with clients who experience significant emotional pain and trauma. In the May 2014 blog, I reported on research on secondary trauma experienced by therapists as an occupational hazard of working with traumatized patients. Although secondary trauma is distinct from burnout, the accumulation of these experiences by therapists coupled with other demands of the work can lead to burnout. Burnout syndrome is often defined as the failure to perform clinical tasks well because of discouragement, apathy, and the experience of emotional or physical drain. Burnout can affect both the therapist’s well being and patient outcomes. In this study by Puig and colleagues, the Counsellor Burnout Inventory (CBI) was given to therapists in five countries. The CBI measures therapist Exhaustion, sense of Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, and Deterioration in Personal Life. The samples of therapists were from countries that included the United States (n = 750), Korea (n = 382), Japan (n = 257), Philippines (n = 218), and Hong Kong (n = 222). Puig and colleagues argue that countries like the US may be characterized by a more individualistic cultural context, whereas other countries in Asia may have more collectivistic values. These cultural values and differing professional practice contexts may affect the experience of burnout by psychotherapists. The majority of therapists were female (67.3% to 85.3%) with average experience ranging from 5.34 years in Korea to 12.33 years in the US. Puig and colleagues translated the CBI from English and then conducted a confirmatory factor analysis that showed that the CBI is reliable and valid within each of these samples of therapists from different countries. Therapists in Hong Kong and the US had the highest scores on the Exhaustion scale. Puig and colleagues suggested that burnout in Hong Kong and US may be most affected by demands of the work that psychotherapists do in those countries. Psychotherapists from Japan reported highest levels on the Incompetence scale, suggesting that burnout in Japanese therapists might be most affected by a sense of low self efficacy and efficiency. Of all the nations, US therapists perceived their working environments most negatively. Deterioation in Personal Life scores were highest in Korea suggesting that burnout may contribute to low personal quality of life for Korean psychotherapists. All therapists reported low mean scores on the Devaluing Client scale, but those in the US and Philippines had the lowest mean scores. It appears that burnout is least affected by negative relationships with clients for all therapist groups.
Therapists, policymakers, and administrators need to attend to increased stress related to psychotherapists’ work, the environment, and characteristics of clients who experience trauma. The impact of stress and burnout can be seen in therapists’ performance their personal lives and well-being. In addition, burnout can affect patient outcomes. Puig and colleagues suggest that psychotherapists can participate in professional development activities (e.g., workshops) to enhance their knowledge and skills in managing stress and maintaining a healthy and balanced work and personal life. Organizations should consider restructuring the social and work environment (e.g., workload), and clarifying and reassessing their expectations of therapists in order to prevent conflict and ambiguity. On his web site, Ken Pope provides a list of resources for therapist well-being and preventing burnout, and he discusses the ethics of therapist self-care.