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
Multiple Microaggressions and Therapy Outcomes
DeBlaere, C., Zelaya, D. G., Dean, J.-A. B., Chadwick, C. N., Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., & Owen, J. (2023). Multiple microaggressions and therapy outcomes: The indirect effects of cultural humility and working alliance with Black, Indigenous, women of color clients. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 54(2), 115–124. https://doi.org/10.1037/pro0000497
Many Black, Indigenous, Women of Color (BIWOC) underutilize mental health care partly because of lack of culturally competent care, and the anticipation of bias and discrimination often experienced by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). One way that such bias and discrimination is expressed in a therapy context is through racial microaggressions which are subtle, intentional, or unintentional messages that degrade BIPOC. Another way that bias and discrimination is expressed is through gender microaggressions which are intentional or unintentional behaviors that exclude, demean, oppress, or express indifference towards women. Research indicates that up to 89% of BIPOC clients and 53% of women experienced a microaggression from their therapist. Both racial and gender microaggressions committed by therapists are related to poorer therapeutic alliance and client outcomes. One might also consider BIWOC clients to be doubly susceptible to microaggressions due the intersecting nature of their identities as a person of color and as a woman. One way to limit the effects of microaggressions is for therapists to take a stance of cultural humility and to foster a therapeutic alliance. Cultural humility refers to a therapist’s way of being with a client that values the importance of culture in the client’s experience. In this study by DeBlaere and colleagues, the authors surveyed 288 BIWOC clients who were currently or recently in psychotherapy to assess the association between microaggressions and outcomes, and whether cultural humility and a therapeutic alliance might reduce the impact of microaggressions. The clients saw a female therapist 81% of the time and a White therapist 46% of the time. DeBlaere and colleagues found that 89% of the sample reported at least one instance of a racial microaggression by their therapist, and 43% reported some form of gender microaggression. White and male therapists were more likely to commit these microaggressions. The most common racial microaggression involved therapists avoiding discussing or addressing cultural issues, and the most common gender microaggression involved therapists encouraging female clients to be less assertive so that the client might not appear aggressive. Racial and gender microaggressions were both negatively related to therapy outcomes. The authors also found that cultural humility and therapeutic alliance both mediated and helped to explain the effects of microaggressions on outcomes. That is, the negative effects of a racial or gender microaggression on outcomes were reduced when the client experienced the therapist as having a higher level of cultural humility, which then led to a stronger therapeutic alliance, that in turn led to a better outcome.
This study points to the potential of therapist cultural humility and their capacity to maintain a therapeutic alliance as key to reducing the impact of racial and gender microaggressions on client outcomes. The findings reinforce the importance of therapists examining their own cultural biases and making discussions of culture and racism explicit in therapy. This is especially important for White male therapists. Such a process might cultivate cultural humility in the therapist that will mitigate the negative impact of a microaggression should it occur.
Interpretations and Outcomes: A Systematic Review
Zilcha-Mano, S., Fisher, H., Dolev-Amit, T., Keefe, J. R., & Barber, J. P. (2023). A systematic review of the association between interpretations and immediate, intermediate, and distal outcomes. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000479
Interpretation is a therapeutic technique that refers to a psychotherapist who recognizes and seeks to raise the patient’s awareness and understanding of recurrent maladaptive patterns. An interpretation goes beyond what the patient says or recognizes consciously and gives a new meaning or explanation for behaviours, thoughts, or feelings so that the patient sees their problems in a new way. In other words, the effect of an interpretation is to raise a patient’s insight into their problems. Interpretation is a transtheoretical technique, although it is often associated with psychodynamic therapies. Some interpretations are interpersonal in nature (focused on maladaptive relationship patterns inside and outside of the therapeutic relationship), and some are intrapersonal in nature (e.g., focused on the conflict between ones wishes/desires and how one ideally sees oneself). In this systematic review of the research on interpretation, Zilcha-Mano and colleagues included 18 studies that tested the association between interpretation and outcomes. Previous reviews found a mixed association between interpretation and outcomes possibly because of the different methods of assessing interpretation and different way of conceptualizing outcomes. What is unique about this review is that it categorized outcomes as immediate (e.g., in-session alliance, disclosure, emotional expression), intermediate (e.g., next-session alliance strength, session depth), and distal (e.g., change in symptoms from pre- to post-treatment). Since there were so few studies in each of these outcome categories (6 studies of immediate, 4 studies of intermediate, and 12 studies of distal outcomes), the authors did not conduct a meta-analysis, but rather counted studies that supported or did not support the use of interpretation for each of these categories of outcomes. For immediate outcomes, half of the studies reported a positive association with interpretation (whereas half of studies showed a neutral or negative association). That is, on average patients in those studies tended to react positively to therapist interpretations during the session with increased therapeutic alliance or emotional processing. For intermediate outcomes, half the studies reported a positive association with interpretation (as opposed to neutral or negative association). That is, on average the results suggested that interpretation in in a previous session was associated with patients experiencing a better alliance and session depth in the subsequent session. For distal outcomes, there was mixed evidence with most studies reporting a neutral effect of interpretation on pre- to post-symptom change.
It is challenging to draw explicit practice implications from a research area that is complex and not yet large enough to allow for a meta-analysis. However, using a mixture of these research findings and clinical experience, Zilcha-Mano and colleagues suggest some therapeutic practices that may be helpful. They suggest, for example that therapists (1) observe the immediate and intermediate outcomes of an interpretation (i.e., does the patient rejected it or does it deepen the therapeutic work?), (2) check with patients about how they feel about the interpretation, (3) prioritize accurate and experience-near interpretation (those that the patient can immediately recognize and understand), (4) monitor the strength of the alliance before, during, and after an interpretation, (5) consider that an interpretation may be more beneficial for patients with poorer quality of relationships and self-concepts than for those with better relationship and self-functioning, and (6) be aware that interpretations may not be beneficial and could be harmful if delivered at the wrong time or if not attuned to the patient’s needs and capacities
Do Psychotherapists Get Better with Experience and Training?
Wampold, B. & Owen, J. (2021). Therapist effects: History, methods, magnitude, and characteristics of effective therapists. In Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 9.
One of the defining characteristics of expertise is the overall improvement in skills and performance over the course of one’s career. We can identify, for example, that there are experts in chess, tennis, surgery, and musical performance based on performance. Expertise in these areas is explicitly developed partly because there is clear and immediate feedback regarding performance (i.e., a tennis player knows immediately that they missed a serve, and so they make an adjustment on the next serve). In psychotherapy, this is not so easy. Therapists rarely receive immediate feedback about their specific interventions or interpersonal responsiveness to a patient. In this part of the chapter, Wampold and Owen review the research on the relationship between therapist experience and training and patient outcomes. They focus on high quality studies that disentangled therapist from patient effects. Overall, the evidence does not support the notion that the more experience that a therapist accumulates the better their patients’ outcomes. In fact, one study that tracked therapists over time (up to 18 years) found that patients’ outcomes got slightly worse with more experience. Similar findings occur for training of student therapists. For the most part, more training that student therapists received over a 12-to-42-month period was not associated with better patient outcomes. There is some evidence that trainees can improve their capacity to develop a therapeutic alliance, and that with more deliberate practice (focused, immediate attention and feedback on specific skills) therapists can realize better outcomes with their patients.
As a senior therapist who is very involved in training, I find these results discouraging. Nevertheless, the solutions offered by the research do provide a ray of hope. Providing therapists with specific and immediate feedback about patient outcomes and therapeutic processes (e.g., ratings of patient distress and of the alliance after every session), has the potential for helping therapists to inform their practice, make adjustments, and develop expertise. Deliberate practice of specific skills in psychotherapy (e.g., ways of addressing an alliance rupture or of responding to intense emotion) may also improve therapist expertise and patient outcomes. It is also quite possible that the focus on learning specific manualized protocols, which is often the goal of graduate and post-graduate training, may not be the most effective training and professional development.
How Does Therapy Harm?
Curran, J., Parry, G.D., Hardy, G.E., Darling, J., Mason, A-M., Chambers, E. (2019). How Does therapy harm? A model of adverse process using task analysis in the meta-synthesis of service users’ experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 10:347. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00347
Forty to 60% of patients do not recover after a course of psychotherapy, and approximately 5% to 8.2% are worse off. In the National Health Service in the UK, 5% of patients reported lasting bad effects of therapy. Although these appear to be small percentages, they represent a large number of patients. In Canada for example, over 1 million Canadians use psychotherapy each year, so 5% would represent 50,000 individuals. Therapists, for their part are poor at identifying patients who deteriorate in therapy. In this meta-synthesis of qualitative research, Curren and colleagues aimed to derive a model based on patients’ experiences of the factors that lead to negative outcomes. They conducted a narrative review of qualitative research findings and of patients’ testimony from a number of sources. They noted eight domains identified by patients that are associated with adverse events in psychotherapy. First, contextual factors refer organizational issues that affect access to or choice of therapy, cultural validity of the therapy, and lack of information about services. Second, pre-therapy factors refer to poor pre-therapy contracting between therapist and patient, and therapists that focus on symptoms rather than the client as a person. Third, therapist factors refer to therapist inflexibility, and therapists’ financial interests that influence their decisions about therapy. Fourth, client factors refer to client lack of understanding of therapy, fear, and demoralization. Fifth, relationship factors refer to a poor relational fit between therapist and patient, therapists perceived as shaming, therapists misusing power, and clients not feeling heard or understood. Sixth, therapist behaviors refer to boundary violations, rigidly applying techniques, therapist acting out, and therapist passivity. Seventh, therapy process refers to the type of therapy offered not matching patient needs, and patients not agreeing with the techniques. Eighth, endings refer to short term therapies that “open a can of worms” without resolution, and the client feeling abandoned.
Therapists would do well to ensure that the patient’s voice is heard when it comes to preferences and cultural validity of the treatment. In particular, therapists should not rigidly apply techniques focused exclusively on symptom reduction. Instead, therapists should see patients’ problems within their interpersonal and cultural context and focus on outcomes related to the quality of life of patients. Therapists must attend to developing and maintaining the therapeutic alliance (agreement on tasks and goals of the therapy, and the relational bond with patients). Any signs of disruptions or tensions in the alliance should be identified and repaired. Patients require information about the therapy, what it entails, and how it will end before signing on to a course of treatment. Organizations must remove barriers to accessing treatment and provide therapies that represent a range of orientations and foci to meet patients’ needs.
Effects of Mental Health Interventions with Asian Americans
Huey, S. J. & Tilley, J. L. (2018). Effects of mental health interventions with Asian Americans: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86, 915-930.
Do existing mental health interventions work well for patients of Asian descent? Interventions delivered in the typical way in which they were devised may not be as effective as intended when it comes to culturally diverse groups like Asian Americans. The clinical trials in which the treatments were developed typically are almost exclusively made up of White participants, and most evidence-based treatments do not consider cultural considerations. Culturally responsive psychotherapies that are consistent with the cultural norms, values, and expectations of patients may be more effective. That is, if an evidence-based treatment is not culture specific, it may not be as effective as intended. Even when culture is taken into account in evidence-based treatments, the accommodation tends to be for African American or Hispanic/Latino patients, and not for Asian American patients. Asian American and East Asian heritage is often influenced by Confucian values that emphasize interpersonal harmony, mutual obligations, and respect for hierarchy in relationships. This may mean that patients of Asian descent may be less committed to personal choice, more attuned to others, and more socially conforming. This may lead to cultural differences in cognitive processing and emotional reactions to interpersonal contexts. In this meta-analysis, Huey and colleagues assessed if the effects of evidence-based treatments will be bigger if the treatments were specifically tailored for Asian Americans. Their review included 18 studies with 6,377 participants. Samples included Chinese Americans, Cambodian Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and other Asian groups. Problems treated included depression, PTSD, smoking, and other concerns. About half of the studies were of CBT, and most (91%) were culturally tailored in some way either for an Asian subgroup or tailored for minorities in general. The mean effect size for evidence-based treatments versus control groups was d = .75, SE = .14, p < .001, indicating a moderate to large effect. Treatments tailored specifically for Asian subgroups (e.g., Chinese Americans) showed the largest effects (d = 1.10), whereas treatment with no cultural tailoring or non-Asian tailoring showed the smallest effects (d = .25).
Existing psychological treatments are efficacious for Asian Americans, with moderate effects. However, treatments specifically adapted for Asian American subgroups showed the largest effects, indicating that specific cultural adaptations could substantially improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Asian Americans face challenges in terms of using and engaging in treatments. Developing culturally specific interventions to improve acceptability of treatment may be one way to make the most therapeutic impact on one of the largest growing racial groups in North America.
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To Manualize or Not to Manualize
Truijens, F., Zühlke‐van Hulzen, L., & Vanheule, S. (2018). To manualize, or not to manualize: Is that still the question? A systematic review of empirical evidence for manual superiority in psychological treatment. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
In 2010 Webb and colleagues published a meta-analysis in which they showed that the association between adherence to a psychotherapy manual and treatment outcome was close to zero. The same was true for therapist competence in delivering the manualized psychotherapy – almost no relationship to client outcome. Psychotherapy manuals typically specify the theoretical basis for an intervention, the number and sequencing of treatment sessions, the content and objective of sessions, and the procedures of each session. National institutes in the US and the UK have promoted manuals as a means to define what is evidence-based psychotherapy. By doing so these institutes assume that psychotherapy that is manualized is more effective that non-manualized treatment. However, detractors have argued that: (1) strict adherence to manuals may reduce therapists’ ability to individualize treatment to client needs and characteristics; (2) manuals are often designed for single disorders but clients tend to have many comorbid conditions; and (3) it is impossible for clinicians to gain competence in all different manuals for the various client conditions they may encounter. In this systematic review, Truijens and colleagues ask: does the use of manuals increase therapy effectiveness? To answer this question they conducted three different systematic reviews. First, they reviewed six studies that directly compared manualized versus non-manualized versions of a psychotherapy within the same study. One study showed manuals were superior, three showed no difference, and two studies showed that non-manualized therapies were more effective. Second, they reviewed eight meta-analyses that compared the pre- to post-treatment effect sizes of manualized therapies and of non-manualized therapies versus no-treatment control conditions. Three meta-analyses concluded that manualized therapies were superior, four meta-analyses did not find differences, and one observed non-manualized treatments to be superior. Third, the authors reviewed 15 additional studies to those reviewed by Webb and colleagues in their original meta-analysis. Overall, Truijens found similar results that support the conclusion that the level of adherence to psychotherapy manuals is not substantially related to better treatment outcomes.
Although treatment manuals may be helpful for training purposes and to ensure validity in psychotherapy research, there is actually little consistent evidence that adhering to a manual results in better client outcomes. Some have argued that rigid adherence to a treatment manual can be harmful to clients. Therapists may need to take a flexible stance when applying research-supported therapeutic principles and interventions. Such a stance adjusts therapy to take into account client characteristics like level of resistance, coping style, attachment style, and others. Truly evidence-informed approaches incorporate what we know about client characteristics, therapeutic relationship factors, and therapist factors to promote positive outcomes in psychotherapy clients.