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 CBT, negative effects of psychological interventions, and what people want from therapy.
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
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Bruijniks, S., Lemmens, L., Hollon, S.D., Peeters, F.P., ….Huibers, M.J. (2020). The effects of once- versus twice-weekly sessions on psychotherapy outcomes in depressed patients. The British Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1192/bjp.2019.265. [Epub ahead of print].
Some research has suggested that the number of sessions per week, not the total number of sessions received, is correlated with patient outcomes. It is possible that higher session frequency per week might lead clients to better recall the content of sessions, which in turn may lead to better treatment outcomes. Or perhaps, higher frequency of sessions might lead to a better therapeutic alliance and higher client motivation thus leading to better outcomes. Although previous research has suggested that more sessions per week is better, no study has ever directly assessed this issue until now. Bruijniks and colleagues conducted a large randomized controlled trial of 200 adults with depression seen across nine specialized clinics in the Netherlands. Researchers randomly assigned clients to receive either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for a maximum of 20 sessions. Half of the clients in either type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a twice a week basis, and half of clients in each type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a once a week basis. The therapies were manualized, therapists were trained and supervised, and clients were carefully selected to meet criteria for depression. More patients dropped out of weekly (31%) compared to twice weekly (17%) therapy. There were no differences between CBT and IPT in depression outcomes. However, there was a significant effect of session frequency on patient outcomes in favor of twice weekly sessions (d = 0.55). Using a strict criteria of “recovery” from depression at 6 months post treatment, 19.6% of patients receiving once weekly therapy “recovered” compared to 29.5% of patients receiving twice weekly therapy.
This large multi-site study has intriguing implications for practice. More frequent sessions per week may result in significantly better patient outcomes regardless of the type of therapy offered. Not surprisingly, IPT and CBT were equally effective. However, their effectiveness was limited in that only between 20% to 30% of patients recovered from depression. This finding is similar to the results previous trials, and speaks to the limitations of time-limited manual-based therapies for depression. Nevertheless, it appears that more frequent therapy per week may be a better option for some clients.
Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) for Chronic Depression
Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) for Chronic Depression
Schramm, E., Kriston, L., Zobel, I., Bailer, J., Wambach, K., …Harter, M. (2017). Effect of disorder-specific vs nonspecific psychotherapy for chronic depression: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, 74, 233-242.
The lifetime prevalence of chronic depression is somewhere between 3% and 6% of the population. Chronic depression refers to depression that develops into a chronic course of more that 2 years. Compared to those with acute depression (< 2 years depressed), patients with chronic depression experience greater social, physical, and mental impairments. This large randomized controlled trial by Schramm and colleagues assessed the efficacy of the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System (CBASP) compared to so-called non-specific psychotherapy (NSP), both delivered in 24 sessions. CBASP is a structured therapy that combines cognitive and interpersonal treatments focused on problems solving and learning the effects of one’s own behaviors on others. On the other hand, therapists delivering NSP were limited to reflective listening, empathy, and helping the client feel hopeful. Specific interventions associated with cognitive or interpersonal therapies were prohibited. A total of 262 patients with chronic depression were randomly assigned to receive 24 sessions of either CBASP or NSP. Main outcomes included indicators of “response” to treatment (a 50% reduction in a depression scale score) or “recovery” (a very low score on the scale at the end of treatment). Both CBASP and NSP resulted in a significant decline in depressive symptoms after 48 weeks. The CBASP condition was slightly more effective than simply providing NSP (d = 0.39, NNT = 5). About 38.7% responded to CBASP compared to 24.3% who responded to NSP (OR = 2.02; 95% CI, 1.09-3.73; p = .03; NNT = 5). In terms of remission, 21.8% recovered after CBASP compared to 12.6% in NSP (OR = 3.55; 95% CI, 1.61-7.85; p = .002; NNT = 4). Average drop-out rates were similar between the two treatments at about 22%.
CBASP represents a highly structured integrative treatment for chronic depression. It did modestly better than NSP in which therapists were prohibited from engaging in any technical intervention. In the end, the longer-term rates of recovery for CBASP were also modest at about 21.8%. On the one hand, chronic depression is notoriously difficult to treat with psychotherapy or medications, so perhaps CBASP will provide relief for some. On the other hand, an average 21.8% recovery rate for CBASP was modest. CBASP was slightly better than providing active listening and empathy alone.
Can a Unified Protocol Bring Together Diverse Evidence-Based Treatments?
Barlow, D.H., Farchione, T., Bullis, J.R., Gallagher, M.W., Murray-Latin, H.,… Cassiello-Robbins, C. (2017). The unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders compared with diagnosis-specific protocols for anxiety disorders: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2164.
One barrier to disseminating and implementing evidence-based treatments is that therapists have to learn to competently apply many different manualized protocols – at least one for each disorder that they treat (depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and others). Barlow and colleagues argue that it is possible to unify many of these protocols under one umbrella, and so they created a unified protocol for this purpose. The unified protocol is an emotion-focused, cognitive-behavioral intervention that targets temperamental characteristics, particularly neuroticism and emotion dysregulation that underly anxiety, depressive, and related disorders. The unified protocol consists of motivational enhancement followed by 5 treatment modules: (1) mindful emotion awareness, (2) cognitive flexibility, (3) identifying and preventing patterns of emotion avoidance, (4) increasing awareness and tolerance of emotion related physical sensations, and (5) emotion-focused exposure. In this trial, 223 participants with an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder) were randomly assigned to the unified protocol, or to the evidence-based treatment specific to the disorder, or to a no-treatment wait-list condition. The sample size was large enough to test a hypothesis of equivalent findings between the two treatment conditions. The differences in changes to symptoms between the unified protocol and the specific interventions for each disorder were small and non-significant at post-treatment and at the follow-up assessments. The treatment conditions were significantly more effective than the wait-list control condition. There were no differences between the treatments in drop-out rates or treatment adherence.
It may be possible for therapists to competently learn to apply a single unified evidence-based treatment for a variety of anxiety disorders that has equivalent outcomes to currently recognized but separate treatment approaches. The unified protocol suggests that the temperamental factors underlying anxiety disorders (emotion dysregulation, emotion avoidance, cognitive inflexibility) can be targeted to treat a wide-range of emotional disorders.
Comparing Three Psychotherapies for Adolescents with Major Depression
Goodyear, I.M., Reynolds, S., Barrett, B., Byford, S., Dubicka, B., ….Fonagy, P. (2016). Cognitive behavioural therapy and short-term psychoanalytical psychotherapy versus a brief psychosocial intervention in adolescents with unipolar major depressive disorder (IMPACT): A multicentre, pragmatic, observer-blind, randomised controlled superiority trial. Lancet Psychiatry, Online first publication: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30378-9.
Major depression affects a large proportion of adolescents worldwide. The Global Burden of Disease Study Found that depressive disorders accounted for over 40% of disease burden caused by all mental and substance use disorders, with the highest burden occurring for those between the ages of 10 and 29. Although there is good evidence for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat depression in adolescents, data is scarce for long term outcomes – which is an important issue because maintaining treatment gains reduces the risk for relapse. There is also little research on alternative treatments to CBT and their long term effects. In this large study, Goodyear and colleagues (2016) randomly assigned 470 adolescents with major depression to receive CBT, short-term psychoanalytical therapy (STPT), or a brief psychosocial intervention (BPI). CBT was based on a commonly used model but adapted to include parents and emphasized behavioural techniques. The STPT model emphasized the child – therapist relationship in which the therapist emphasized understanding feelings and difficulties in ones life. STPT also included some family meeting. BPI on the other hand focused on psychoeducation about depression, was task and goal oriented, and emphasized interpersonal activities. The study also compared cost-effectiveness of the three treatments – that is, whether the treatments’ costs relative to their effectiveness were different. There were some advantages in terms of reduced depression to both CBT and STPT compared to BPI at 36 weeks and 52 weeks post treatment, but these advantages disappeared by 86 weeks follow-up. Across all three treatments, about 77% of adolescents with depression were in remission (i.e., no longer depressed) by 86 weeks post-treatment. There were no differences between the three treatments in terms of cost-effectiveness.
This is one of those rare studies that is large enough to adequately compare the efficacy of alternative treatments for adolescents with major depression. CBT, STPT, and BPI were all associated with reduced depression in adolescents, and with maintenance of these improvements 1 year after the start of treatment. Both BPI and STPT provide alternative choices to CBT for patients and therapists.
Cognitive Therapy and Dynamic Psychotherapy for Major Depression in a Community Setting
Connolly Gibbons, M.B., Gallop, R., Thompson, D., Luther, D., Crits-Christoph, K., Jacobs, J., Yin, S., & Crits-Christoph, P. (2016). Comparative effectiveness of cognitive therapy and dynamic psychotherapy for major depressive disorder in a community mental health setting: A randomized clinical noninferiority trial. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1720.
Dynamic psychotherapy is widely practiced in the community, but there remain very few trials assessing its effectiveness. Dynamic therapy targets individuals’ problematic relationship conflicts. Cognitive therapy on the other hand has been established as effective for major depression in a number of controlled trials. This study by Connolly Gibbons and colleagues was designed to test if dynamic therapy was equivalent (not inferior) to cognitive therapy in treating major depressive disorder in a community setting. There are two important and novel aspects to this research. First, the study takes place with community-based therapists in a community mental health setting. This means that the usual critique that randomized controlled trials do not speak to what therapists do with real patients in everyday practice is addressed in this study. Second, the sample size is large enough and the study is sufficiently powered so that one can make conclusions about non-inferiority (statistics geeks will know that making a hypothesis of non-inferiority, equivalence, or no difference requires enough power and a large enough sample size – something that is quite rare in psychotherapy trials). Twenty therapists who worked in a community mental health center were trained by experts in dynamic therapy or cognitive therapy. The therapists treated 237 adults with major depressive disorder with 16 sessions of dynamic or cognitive therapy. Therapists were followed the treatment manuals and they were judged by independent raters as competent in delivering the treatment. Patients on average got significantly better regarding depressive symptoms (d = .55 to .65), and there were no significant differences in the rate of improvement between dynamic and cognitive therapy patients (d = .11). There were also no differences between treatments on several measures of quality of life. A noteworthy finding was that about 80% of patients continued to have some depressive symptoms by the end of treatment even though they improved.
This study adds to research indicating that short-term dynamic psychotherapy is as effective as short term cognitive therapy for treating major depression. The study also indicates that the treatments under intensive supervision and training can be provided effectively by community therapists in real world settings. That 80% of patients continued to have some depressive symptoms suggests that the short term nature of the therapies may not have represented a large enough dose of treatment for most patients.
How Effective is Computerized CBT in Treating Depression in Primary Care?
Gilbody, S., Littlewood, E., Hewitt, C., Brierley, Tharmanathan, P....White, D. (2015). Computerised cognitive behaviour therapy (cCBT) as treatment for depression in primary care (REEACT trial): Large scale pragmatic randomised controlled trial. BMJ, 351, h5627. Doi: 10.1136/bmj.h5627.
Depression is one of the most common reasons why people see family physicians for consultation. The personal and economic burden of depression is high, such that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Effective treatments for depression include antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression, but is not always accessible for those who live in remote areas, and for those who cannot easily find or afford a trained psychotherapist. One solution, touted by some is to provide computerized CBT (cCBT) via internet or CD. In fact, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK recommend cCBT programs as a first step of care for depression. Commercially available cCBT programs include “Beating the Blues”, and freely available programs include “MoodGYM”. Previous research shows a large effect of cCBT for reducing depressive symptoms, but non-adherence (i.e., not completing the modules) and patient dropout rates tend to be high. Another issue is that most of the studies of cCBT were conducted by the developers of the programs, and so there may be researcher allegiance effects that could bias the findings. In this large trial, Gilbody and colleagues asked: “How effective is supported computerized cognitive behavior therapy (cCBT) when it is offered in addition to usual primary care in adults with depression?” The authors recruited 691 depressed patients seen in primary care with a general practitioner (GP) in the UK. All participants had access to a computer and high speed internet. The participants were randomly assigned to receive: (1) usual GP care plus 8 50-minute sessions of Beating the Blues, or (2) usual GP care plus 6 weekly modules of MoodGYM, or (3) only usual GP care. Usual GP care included providing antidepressants, counselling, or brief psychotherapy which are all offered as part of the UK National Health Service. Computerized CBT was supported by weekly telephone calls followed by reminder emails to encourage participants to access, use, and complete the programs. At 4 months after the start of treatment, about half of all participants were no longer depressed, and there were no differences between the three study conditions on any of the outcomes (e.g., depression, quality of life). The results were consistent up to 2 years post treatment. However, only about 17% of those receiving one of the cCBT treatments completed all of the sessions. The average number of sessions completed of cCBT was very low (Beating the Blues = 2 out of 8 sessions; MoodGYM = 1 out of 6 sessions). The authors concluded that there was no significant benefit of adding supported cCBT to usual GP care.
Adding cCBT to usual GP care did not provide added benefit to depressed patients. Low adherence and low engagement with cCBT likely reduced the utility of computerized delivery of therapy. It is possible that more intensively supported cCBT (i.e., with weekly face to face contacts) might have improved the added value of cCBT, but would also have reduced the practically utility and accessibility of cCBT. Those who are depressed might have difficulty with summoning the energy and concentration necessary to repeatedly log on to computers and engage in computerized or internet based treatment.