Cuijpers, P., Sijbrandij, E.M., Koole, S.L., Andersson, G., Beekman, A.T. & Reynolds, C.F. (2014). Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis. World Psychiatry, 13(1), 56-67.
Anxiety and depressive disorders occur at a high rate and are very burdensome to those who suffer. These disorders are also related to high levels of health care costs, loss of productivity, and lower quality of life. Both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions are effective, yet in recent years there has been a trend for patients to receive psychotropic interventions alone rather than psychotherapy. Cuijpers and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta analysis comparing pharmacotherapy alone versus pharmacotherapy combined with psychotherapy. Studies in the meta analysis included a variety of disorders such as depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. (Meta analysis is an important tool to review and combine the effects of interventions across a large number of studies. Rather than simply counting studies with positive, neutral, or negative findings, meta analysis allows one to calculate an effect size, average the effect sizes across different studies, and look at predictors or moderators of the effects. Aggregated effect sizes in a meta analysis are much more reliable [i.e., dependable] than any single study result). Cuijpers and colleagues’ meta analysis included 52 studies with 3,623 patients. Most studies tested cognitive behavioral therapy, though a large minority also included interpersonal psychotherapy and psychodynamic therapy. Most studies used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), though some included tricyclic antidepressants and others. There was a moderately large overall difference between pharmacotherapy versus combined pharmacotherapy plus psychotherapy for major depression, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That is, adding psychotherapy resulted in a clinically meaningful improvement above and beyond pharmacotherapy alone. There were no significant differences found for type of antidepressant medication or for type of psychotherapy. Eleven studies included a placebo control condition to which medication alone vs medication plus psychotherapy was compared. The effect of combining medication and psychotherapy was twice as large as the effect of medication alone when compared to a placebo control condition. Nineteen studies followed patients after treatment (from 3 to 24 months post treatment), and the superiority of combined treatment versus medication alone remained strong and significant well into follow up.
There has been a trend over the past decade to provide medication as a first line of treatment for depression and anxiety disorders. However, the results of this meta analysis indicate that monotherapy with medication alone is not optimal treatment for most patients, and that psychotherapy results in additive clinically meaningful improvement for most patients. The additive effects of psychotherapy are especially pronounced for major depression, panic disorder, and OCD.