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
More Treatment But No Less Depression
Ormel, J., Hollon, S.D., Kessler, R.C., Cuijpers, P., & Monroe, S.M. (2022). More treatment but no less depression: The treatment-prevalence paradox. Clinical Psychology Review, 91, 102111.
It is widely believed that treatments for major depression (psychotherapy and antidepressant medications) have improved patients’ symptoms since the 1980s. Mental health expenditures and access to treatment for major depressive disorder (depression) have also increased during that time, especially for antidepressant medications. However, we have not witnessed a reduction in the population prevalence (proportion of people who experienced a condition during their lifetime) or incidence (proportion of people who currently have the condition) of depression. How can it be that we perceive treatments to be more effective and available but rates of depression in the population have not budged? In this comprehensive conceptual analysis with a review of the evidence, Ormel and colleagues examined possible reasons for what they describe as the treatment-prevalence paradox. First, one could argue that prevalence and incidence rates are inflated due to a recent greater recognition and acceptance of depression in society. If that’s the case, then any reduction in prevalence or incidence caused by new treatments may be offset by more people coming forward and admitting to having depression. However, epidemiological studies are conducted by trained interviewers using standardized diagnostic criteria, which should reduce any inflation caused by spurious reporting. In fact, large epidemiological studies do not show an increase in incidence of depression over time, so that incidence in the U.S. remains approximately 1.5% and worldwide prevalence remains about 4.7%. Second, it is possible that randomized controlled trials might over-estimate the efficacy of psychotherapy or medication for depression. Thus, even if these treatments are more available, they may not impact population prevalence or incidence rates because they are not as effective as we once thought. The authors found that meta-analyses that adjusted for publication bias (the tendency of researchers or industry not to publish negative findings or to put a positive spin on such findings) reported treatment efficacy to be modest. That is, only about 30% of patients recover from depression following psychotherapy or medications. Third, it is also possible that the actual efficacy of psychotherapy or medications to prevent relapse or recurrence in the longer term is too small to reduce population prevalence or incidence of depression. That seems to be the case. Even if 30% of patients respond initially to treatments like CBT or medications, about half of these initial responders relapse at 1- or two-years post treatment. And many of those who do not relapse still struggle with residual symptoms.
The authors concluded that even though access to psychotherapy or medications have increased and the treatments supposedly have become better over the decades, therapies have not moved the needle on population prevalence or incidence of depression. Clinicians might consider talking to patients honestly about the efficacy of the treatments they are offering without unnecessarily demoralizing patients. That is, treatments considered to be the “gold standard” by researchers and practice guidelines are only modestly effective. When a patient does not benefit from “gold standard” treatments, it should be considered a failure of the treatment and not a function of “patient non-responsiveness”. It is also quite likely that brief
Adding Short-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy to Antidepressants
Driessen, E., Fokkema, M., Dekker, J.J.M., Peen, J., Van, H.L…. Cuijpers, P. (2022). Which patients benefit from adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressants in the treatment of depression? A systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. Psychological Medicine.
Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (STPP) and anti-depressant medications are both considered empirically supported treatments for depression. And there have been several trials demonstrating the efficacy of long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy for treatment-resistant depression. Despite this research, it remains unclear which patient might benefit from anti-depressant medication alone and which patient might benefit from adding STPP to the antidepressants. The best use of scarce resources makes this an important question. There are challenges to doing a meta-analysis of patient characteristics that predict different outcomes in antidepressants alone versus antidepressants plus STPP. A key challenge is that common meta-analyses use study-level data (an overall summary of the effect size found in a study), and so statistical power often is limited by the small number of studies. The unique aspect of this study by Driessen and colleagues is that they conducted a meta-analysis of patient-level data. That is, they got individual patient data from the authors of the seven studies that specifically tested the effects of antidepressants alone vs antidepressants plus STPP. So instead of being limited by seven summary effect size statistics, the authors had a sample of 482 patient effect sizes to work with. The effect of adding STPP to antidepressants was larger for participants with high rather than low baseline depression scores [B = −0.49, 95% CI: −0.61 to −0.37, p < 0.0001], for participants with ⩽8 rather than more years of education (B = −0.66, 95% CI −1.05 to −0.27, p < 0.0009), and for participants with a depressive episode duration of >2 years rather than <1 year (B = −0.68, 95% CI −1.31 to −0.05, p = 0.03) or less than 1–2 years (B = −0.86, 95% CI −1.66 to −0.06, p = 0.04). At follow-up, higher baseline depression scores and longer depressive episode duration were still associated with better outcomes for those receiving a combination of antidepressants plus STPP.
The results of this patient-level meta-analysis suggests that adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressant medication might be particularly efficacious for patients with higher initial levels of depression and/or with longer duration of depressive symptoms. It is possible that the addition of a psychological treatment like STPP may tackle some of the underlying psychological vulnerabilities whose treatment is necessary for those who have more persistent and severe depressive symptoms.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression
Newman, M.G., Agras, W.S., Haaga, D.A.F., & Jarrett, R.B. (2021). Cognitive, behavioral, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. In Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 14.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most researched psychotherapy for many disorders including depressive disorders. Depression is a global health problem that affects physical and emotional health and is associated with many adverse effects (substance dependence, poverty, illness). And so, finding good treatment options for patients with depression is an important goal. Many treatment guidelines view CBT as one of the first-line treatments for depression based on the research that demonstrates its efficacy. In this chapter of the Handbook, Newman and colleagues review the research on the efficacy of CBT. Immediately post-treatment, the effect sizes for CBT were medium to large when compared to treatment as usual (g = .59, 95% CI [0.42, 0.76]), placebo control groups (g = 0.51, 95% CI [0.32, 0.69]) and wait list/no treatment control groups (g = 0.83, 95% CI [0.72, 0.94]). The effects of CBT for depression tend not to differ from other bona-fide psychotherapies including interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) (g = –0.09, 95% CI [–0.39, 0.20]), psychodynamic therapies (g = 0.25, 95% CI [–0.07, 0.58]), and supportive psychotherapy (g = 0.15, 95% CI [–0.06, 0.25]). The effects of CBT are also similar to those achieved with anti-depressant medications (g = 0.03, 95% CI [-0.13, 0.18]). Approximately 41% of patients with major depression who receive CBT have significantly fewer depressive symptoms immediately post-treatment than the average patient treated in a placebo or waiting list/no treatment control group. There have been some criticisms of the effect size estimates for CBT in some of these studies. For example, research indicates that newer and higher quality studies have resulted in smaller effects. And so there remains concerns that the overall effects of CBT for depression may be over-estimated.
Treatment guidelines indicate that CBT is one of the first-line treatment for depressive disorders along with anti-depressant medications and other psychological therapies. CBT appears to improve both short-term and longer-term outcomes for some adults. There is also some evidence that if CBT is combined with pharmacotherapy, then patients might experience even greater improvement. CBT may result in patients learning something about themselves and their depression, which might reduce relapse and recurrence of the depression, although evidence for the latter is still uncertain.
Sustained Response to Antidepressants and Psychotherapy
Furukawa, T.A., Shinohara, K., Sahker, E., Karyotaki, E., Miguel, C., ….Cuijpers, P. (2021). Initial treatment choices to achieve sustained response in major depression: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. World Psychiatry, 20, 387-396.
Two common treatments for major depression are antidepressant medications and psychotherapy, both of which have been tested in randomized controlled trials. Antidepressants are among the most prescribed medications, and an increasing number of patients are on longer-term use of these medications. However, it is unclear as to whether choosing antidepressant medication or psychotherapy at the beginning or the acute phase of depression will lead to a sustained response in the longer term. In this network meta-analysis, Furukawa and colleagues examine the important question: “which therapies can get me well and keep me well?” The authors selected randomized controlled studies in which antidepressants or psychotherapy, or their combination were prescribed and compared to each other or to a control condition (treatment as usual or placebo pill). In these studies, adult participants with major depression remained in the treatment or control condition up to 12 months post-treatment. Psychotherapies included many known treatments like CBT, behavioral activation, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy. This network meta-analysis included 81 trials representing over 13,000 patient participants. Combined psychotherapy plus antidepressant medication resulted in a more sustained response to treatment (better outcomes) in the long run than control comparisons (OR: 2.52, 95% CI: 1.66, 3.85). Psychotherapy alone was more effective in the long run than pharmacotherapy alone (OR: 1.53, 95% CI: 1:00 – 2.35). The advantage of combined treatment over antidepressants alone was about 14% to 16%, whereas the advantage of psychotherapy over antidepressants was about 12%. There were no differences in longer term effectiveness among the different types of psychotherapy.
This study shows that the effects of psychotherapy when initiated in the acute phase of major depression (at the outset of symptoms) are enduring over a longer time frame. Psychotherapies outperformed antidepressant medications, standard treatment, and pill placebo. The results also suggested that adding pharmacotherapy to psychotherapy did not interfere with the enduring effects of psychotherapy. The authors suggest that treatment guidelines for depression should be updated to emphasize psychotherapy as the preferred initial treatment option.
What are Patients’ Experiences of Psychological Therapy?
McPherson, S., Wicks, C. & Tercelli, I. (2020). Patient experiences of psychological therapy for depression: A qualitative metasynthesis. BMC Psychiatry, 20, 313. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02682-1
Many times, researchers choose what to study in psychotherapy trials without really consulting patients who are receiving the care. For example, researchers are often primarily interested in how well psychotherapies reduce symptoms in patients with a particular disorder, or researchers might be interested in certain constructs that might affect patient outcomes (e.g., therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy). But are these the things that patients are really interested in when they seek psychological therapy? Although many treatment guidelines emphasize patient choice and experience, none of them take research of patient experiences into account to develop the guidelines. When presented with findings from randomized controlled trials of psychotherapy, patients reported that the research was of limited value in helping them make an informed choice about therapy. In this metasynthesis of qualitative studies, McPherson and colleagues aimed to bring together qualitative evidence concerning adult patients’ experiences of psychotherapy for depression. Qualitative research typically involves interviewing patients and systematically categorizing their responses into meaningful themes. The authors found 38 qualitative studies involving patient interviews of their experiences in receiving psychotherapy for depression. Several key themes emerged from the analysis. First, many people who receive remote therapy primarily from a computer program felt dissatisfied because of the lack of or limited contact with a real person therapist. Most patients did not feel connected to the computerized therapy and so their motivation waned quickly. Second, patients found psychological models and techniques to be less relevant than their need for help with their immediate family or social problems that likely triggered their depressive symptoms. This points to the primary importance of quality of life and of the social and cultural context for patients, despite that many psychological therapies tend to focus on symptoms almost exclusively. Third, this metasynthesis pointed to reports of negative effects of therapy, in which some therapeutic techniques like body scans induced flashbacks in some patients. Other patients had mixed or sometimes negative feelings about requirements for homework, which sometimes felt overwhelming, culturally out of step, or irrelevant.
This metasynthesis of patient experiences in psychotherapy point to the importance of asking patients about their goals, expectations, and preferences in therapy. The findings highlight the importance of some common factors across therapies (e.g., therapist warmth and humanness, collaborative agreement on tasks and goals, and patient factors like culture and individual differences). Patients prefer human connection with therapists, and they tend to place less value on techniques of therapy. Patients also tend to value outcomes related to quality of life, social connection, and they want therapy consistent with their cultural values. Patients should be fully involved in a collaborative discussion about which therapy you offer them, how you provide the therapy, and what they want to achieve in therapy.
Association Between Insight and Outcome of Psychotherapy
Jennissen, S., Huber, J., Ehrenthal, J.C., Schauenburg, H., & Dinger, U. (2018). Association between insight and outcome of psychotherapy: Systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Published Online: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17080847
For many authors, one of the purported mechanisms of change in psychotherapy is insight. In fact, the utility of insight for clients with mental health problems was first proposed over 120 years ago by Freud and Breuer. Briefly, insight refers to higher levels of self-understanding that might result in fewer negative automatic reactions to stress and other challenges, more positive emotions, and greater flexibility in cognitive and interpersonal functioning. Although insight is a key factor in some psychodynamic models, it also plays a role in other forms of psychotherapy. Experiential psychotherapy emphasises gaining a new perspective through experiencing, and for CBT insight relates to becoming more aware of automatic thoughts. Jennissen and colleagues defined insight as patients understanding: the relationship between past and present experiences, their typical relationship patterns, and the associations between interpersonal challenges, emotional experiences, and psychological symptoms. In this study, Jennissen and colleagues conducted a systematic review and meta analysis of the insight-outcome relationship, that is the relationship between client self-understanding and symptom reduction. They reviewed studies of adults seeking psychological treatment including individual or group therapy. The predictor variable was an empirical measure of insight assessed during treatment but prior to when final outcomes were evaluated. The outcome was some reliable and empirical measure related to symptom improvement, pre- to post- treatment. The review turned up 22 studies that included over 1100 patients mostly with anxiety or depressive disorders who attended a median of 20 sessions of therapy. The overall effect size of the association between insight and outcome was r = 0.31 (95% CI=0.22–0.40, p < 0.05), which represents a medium effect. Moderator analyses found no effect of type of therapy or diagnosis on this mean effect size, though the power of these analyses was low.
The magnitude of the association between insight and outcome is similar to the effects of other therapeutic factors such as the therapeutic alliance. When gaining insight, patients may achieve a greater self-understanding, which allows them to reduce distorted perceptions of themselves, and better integrate unpleasant experiences into their conscious life. Symptoms may be improved by self-understanding because of the greater sense of control and master that it provides, and by the new solutions and adaptive ways of living that become available to clients.
Author email: Simone.Jennissen@med.uni-heidelberg.de