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
Comparing Seven Psychotherapies for Depression
Barth, J., Munder, T., Gerger, H., Nuesch, E., Trelle, S. et al. (2013) Comparative efficacy of seven psychotherapeutic Interventions for patients with depression: A network meta-analysis. PLoS Med 10(5): e1001454. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001454
As I wrote about in the June, 2014 blog, depression is a highly burdensome disorder and is the third leading cause of disability worldwide after lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases. Depression occurs in 4.4% of the world population. Identifying effective treatment for depression is critical to reduce its health and economic burden. There is broad based consensus that psychotherapy is effective for depression, but there remains ongoing debate about which therapies are more effective. Establishing the relative efficacy of psychotherapy for depression is important because many patients do not respond to any one type of treatment – and so they may benefit from different options. Although some meta-analyses have synthesized research that compared pairs of treatments against one another within studies, these meta analyses do not allow one to pool these comparisons of treatments across studies in a comprehensive way. The study by Barth and colleagues uses a relatively new method called network meta analysis in which many treatments can be compared to each other at once by pooling comparisons of treatments to alternate treatments across a number of studies. As a result the authors were able in one meta analysis to compare the relative efficacy of seven different treatments for depression. The seven therapies were defined as follows: (1) Interpersonal Psychotherapy: a brief and structured therapy that focuses on interpersonal issues in depression; (2) Behavioral Activation: raises the patient’s awareness of pleasant activities and seeks to increase the patient’s positive interactions with the environment; (3) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: focuses on a patient’s negative beliefs, how they affect current and future behavior, and restructures the beliefs; (4) Problem Solving Therapy: defines a patient’s problems, proposes solutions for each problem, and then selects the best solution; (5) Psychodynamic Therapy: focuses on unresolved conflicts and relationships and the impact they have on a patient’s current functioning; (6) Social Skills Therapy: teaches skills that help to build and maintain healthy relationships; and (7) Supportive Counseling: aims to help patients talk about their experiences and emotions, and offers empathy. The network meta analysis included 198 clinical trials that represented 15,118 patients in which the seven psychotherapies were compared to each other or to a control condition. All seven psychotherapies were better than wait list controls or usual care, with moderate to large differences. That is, the average patient receiving psychotherapy was better off than about half those in a control condition. Researchers found small or no differences when the seven therapies were compared to each other. Treatments worked equally well for different patient groups (e.g., younger vs older; post natal depression; etc.), and in different modalities (individual vs group).
All seven therapies were effective in reducing depression and none of the seven therapies in this network meta analysis stood out as superior to the others. The findings suggest that patients have a number of viable options for psychotherapeutic treatment for depression. This is important because, about 40% of patients do not benefit from the treatments they do receive, though they may benefit from another approach and will require other options. Client preferences may play a critical role in determining outcomes for some. If possible, patients should be given the option of the type treatment they may prefer or the option of the type of therapist with which they may be most comfortable.
Global Burden of Depression
Ferrari, A.J., Charlson, F.J., Norman, R.E., Patten, S.B., Freedman, G., et al. (2013). Burden of depressive disorders by country, sex, age, and year: Findings from the global burden of disease study 2010. PLoS Medicine, 10(11): e1001547. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001547.
Depressive disorders are among the most common mental disorders that previously were described as a leading cause of burden in the world. In epidemiological literature, burden is defined in several ways. One common metric is “disability adjusted life years” (DALYs) which represents loss of a healthy year of life. DALYs can be aggregated into the “years of life lived with disability” (YLD). Another metric is the “years of life lost due to premature mortality” (YLL). Each of these metrics of burden can be estimated from aggregating data from a number of studies and meta analyses that assess burden world wide. Such epidemiologic studies can also look at relative burden across countries, ages, and sex. In the 2000 Global Burden of Disease report, depressive disorders were the third leading cause of burden after lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases. Depression was also the leading cause of disability, responsible for 13.4% of years of life living with disability in women and 8.3% in men. In this study by Ferrari and colleagues, the authors provide a 2010 update to the Global Burden of Disease report for major depressive disorder and dysthymia. Major depressive episode is the experience of depressed mood almost all day, every day, for at least 2 weeks. Dysthymia involves a less severely depressed mood with duration of at least 2 years, a chronic rather than episodic course, but with low rates of remission. Ferrari and colleagues reviewed over 700 studies from 1980 to 2010. Prevalence (i.e., current rate) of major depression and dysthymia in the world population is 5.95%, representing nearly 400 million people. Major depression (4.4%) occurs more frequently than dysthymia (1.55%). Major depression occurs more frequently among women (5.5%) than men (3.2%). Major depression accounted for 8.2% of all years lost to disability, making it the second leading cause after low back pain. The percent of years lost due to disability increased since 1990, largely due to population increases and aging of the world population. The highest level of burden due to depression was seen in Afghanistan and the lowest in Japan. In terms of world regions, North Africa and Latin America showed the highest levels of burden due to depression. The authors also reported that 2.9% of disability adjusted life years from ischemic heart disease can be attributed to major depression.
This study joins others in past decades to define depression as a leading cause of years lost to disability worldwide, with over 400 million people suffering from a depressive disorder. The increasing burden of depression is partly due to decreasing mortality caused by other diseases in developing countries and population aging. Countries that have recently experienced conflict (e.g., Afghanistan, North Africa, Middle East) were particularly burdened by depression. But research has also linked depression to intimate partner violence and child sexual abuse. Mortality is elevated with major depression, as is disability related to other medical problems like heart disease. This epidemiological research points to the importance of identifying and treating depression in the population. Psychotherapeutic interventions provide highly effective treatments for depression.
Medication Versus Psychotherapy for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders
Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole SL, Andersson G, Beekman AT, Reynolds III CF (2013). The efficacy of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy in treating depressive and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons. World Psychiatry, 12, 137-148.
Both psychotherapy and antidepressant medications are efficacious treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. However, there remains some debate about whether they are equally effective for all disorders, and whether psychotherapy and antidepressants are equally efficacious for each disorder. As I indicated in the March 2014 blog, antidepressant medications alone have become the first line of treatment for many who have depressive and anxiety disorders. However, a recent meta analysis concluded that monotherapy with medication alone was not optimal treatment for most patients, and that adding psychotherapy results in clinically meaningful improvement for most patients. Cuijpers and colleagues (2013) reported on an overall meta analysis of the studies in which psychotherapy and medication were directly compared to each other in adults with depressive disorders, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They combined the effects of 67 studies including 5,993 patients. Forty studies included depressive disorders and 27 included anxiety disorders. Most therapies (49 of 78) were characterized as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the others included interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy, and non-directive counselling. Most patients were seen in individual treatment for 12 to 18 sessions. The most commonly prescribed medications were selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). The overall mean effect size for the difference between psychotherapy and medications was almost zero, indicating no significant difference. Regarding specific disorders and treatments, pharmacotherapy was more effective for dysthymia, but the effect size was small. By contrast, psychotherapy was more effective for OCD, and the effect size was moderately large. SSRI had similar effects to psychotherapy, but non-directive counselling was less effective than pharmacotherapy, though the effect was small.
This meta analysis by Cuijpers and colleagues found that the differences between psychotherapy and antidepressant medications were non-existent for major depression, panic disorder, and SAD. Although antidepressants were more effective for dysthymia, the difference was small and disappeared when study quality was controlled, and so this finding is not reliable. Psychotherapy was clearly more effective for OCD even after adjusting for study quality and other factors. This is the first meta analysis to show the relative superiority of psychotherapy for OCD, and suggests psychotherapy as a first line treatment. The meta analysis only looked at post treatment results and not at longer term effects. There is evidence from other research showing that antidepressants do not have strong effects after patients stop taking them, whereas psychotherapy’s effects tend to be sustained in the longer term.
The Effectiveness of Evidence-Based Treatments for Personality Disorders
Budge, S.L., Moore, J.T., Del Re, A.C., Wampold, B.E., Baardseth, T.P., & Nienhuis, J.B. (2013). The effectiveness of evidence-based treatments for personality disorders when comparing treatment-as-usual and bona fide treatments. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1057-1066.
Personality disorders (PD) are more stable and enduring than other mental disorders and are characterized by pervasive, serious, and rigid self-destructive patterns in affect, cognition, interpersonal relations, and impulse control that reduce psychological well-being. PD are associated with higher rates of self injury, suicide, and health care costs. The prevalence of PD in the population ranges from 6% to 13%. The presence of PD in a patient often reduces the effectiveness of psychological treatments for Axis I disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety) that the patient may have. Psychotherapy may be more effective than other interventions, such as pharmacotherapy, for treating PD. In their meta analysis, Budge and colleagues (2013) addressed two questions. First, are manualized evidence-based treatments (EBT) as provided in clinical trials superior to treatment as usual (TAU), presumably as offered in naturalistic settings, for treating PD? Second, are there differences between bona fide treatments (i.e., psychotherapy administered by trained therapists and based on sound psychological theories) for PD? (A note about meta analyses: meta analyses are a statistical method to combine the findings of a large number of studies while accounting for the sample sizes, quality of the studies, and size of the effects. Meta analyses provide us with much more dependable results than any single study could provide). Regarding the first question, 30 studies were included in the meta analysis. Evidence-based treatments included psychodynamic therapies, cognitive behavioral therapies, and dialectical behavior therapy, among others. Overall, EBTs were more effective than TAUs, and the effect was medium sized. The positive effects in favor of EBT over TAU were larger for patients with borderline personality disorder. For the second study comparing bona fide treatments, only 12 studies were found and included in the meta analysis. Only three of the studies indicated that one bona fide therapy was more effective than another. It is also important to note that the average duration of treatment in the EBT studies was 1 year and peaked at 40 sessions.
As Budge and colleagues (2013) concluded, with sufficient training, supervision, and dose hours, it appears that evidence based treatments (EBT) are more effective than treatments as usual (TAU) for personality disorders (PD). The results of the meta analysis suggested that training in evidence based psychotherapies may be necessary to achieve the best possible outcomes for patients with PD, especially those with borderline personality disorder. Are there differences in between EBTs for PD? The literature on this issue is quite small, so that 12 studies are not enough to make many conclusions. There is previous evidence that psychodynamic therapies and CBT yield very large effects for PD. The pervasiveness and complexity of PD symptoms make it so that effective treatments are necessarily longer term, which is consistent with previous research on this topic.
How Much Do Psychotherapists Differ in Their Outcomes and Why Does this Matter?
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content and sections of the book can be read on Google Books.
Baldwin, S. & Imel, Z.E. (2013). Therapist effects. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 258-297). New York: Wiley.
Does it matter that some therapists are more effective than others? Can less effective therapists be trained to improve their outcomes and relationship quality with patients? These are important questions not only for our patients’ well-being but also for the long term survival of psychotherapy as a health enterprise. If we do not measure outcomes and help therapists who are less effective, stakeholders (i.e., clients, families, agencies, insurance companies) may stop paying for the services. In the September 2013 blog I discussed a large study that showed that a few therapists were reliably harmful and some therapists were reliably helpful to their patients. That study also reported that most therapists were effective in 5 of 12 problem domains for which their patients sought help. What these findings and the Handbook chapter by Baldwin and Imel (2013) show is that there are significant between-therapist effects (i.e., therapists differed from each other on patient outcomes) and within-therapist effects (i.e., therapist outcomes within their own caseload differed based on the patients’ problems). Baldwin and Imel (2013) reported on their meta analysis in which between-therapist differences accounted for 5% of the outcome variance. That seems small, but it’s not. One study, for example, estimated that for each 100 patients that would be treated, the worst therapist compared to the best therapist would have 6 more patients who deteriorated. I would prefer my loved ones to be seen by the best therapist, even if the difference between best and worst is only 5%. Nevertheless, 95% of the variance in outcomes is within the therapist’s caseload. That is, the patient, other contextual variables, and the therapist-patient relationship are by far the biggest contributors to outcome. As Baldwin and Imel point out, not only are some therapists are more effective for some patients and not others, but also some therapists are better at developing a therapeutic relationship with some patients than with others. Baldwin and Imel reported that, on average, 9% of the variance in the quality of the therapeutic alliance is associated with the therapist – that’s a clinically meaningful effect.
As Baldwin and Imel (2013) state, ignoring therapist accountability is detrimental to patients and to the mental health field in general. If stakeholders do not see evidence of positive outcomes, then they will withdraw funding, and patients will have even less access to services. Therapists differ in their outcomes, and outcomes also differ within each therapist’s caseload. If a primary goal is to improve therapist performance and patient outcomes, then therapists need to measure outcomes and therapeutic relationship quality. This knowledge about performance with specific patients can help therapists seek continuing education and training to improve outcomes and therapeutic alliances with specific patients for whom the therapist is less effective. This may require continuous outcome monitoring and real-time feedback to therapists regarding their patients’ outcomes (see my September 2013 blog in identifying clients who might deteriorate).
Researcher Allegiance in Psychotherapy Outcome Research
Munder, T., Brütsch, O., Leonhart, R., Gerger, H., & Barth, J. (2013). Researcher allegiance in psychotherapy outcome research: An overview of reviews. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 501-511.
Although evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy is largely uncontested, there remains debate about whether one type of treatment is more effective than another. This debate continues despite a recent American Psychological Association (APA) resolution on the equivalent efficacy of most systematic psychotherapy approaches. There are many aspects to this debate (e.g., some treatments are more researched than others and so appear to be better; symptom focused measurements are more sensitive to change and so may favour one treatment over another; some treatments are more amenable to manualization and short term application; etc.). One element of the debate that has received a lot of attention is researcher allegiance. Researcher allegiance refers to researchers preferring one treatment approach over another, and this preference may bias comparative outcome trials in favour of the preferred therapy. Researcher allegiance is measured by assessing primary researchers’ publication history or by their self-declared preference for a particular therapy approach. There exist 30 meta analyses that assessed researcher allegiance since the 1980s. These meta analyses focused on different therapy types, client populations (adults, children), and research designs (randomized trials, naturalistic effectiveness studies). However, some meta analyses have reported contradictory results for the researcher allegiance effect. This could be due to the different foci of the meta analyses (i.e., different treatment approaches, patient populations, age groups, etc.), and also possibly due the allegiance of those conducting the meta analyses. Munder and colleagues (2013) conducted a mega analysis of these meta analyses. As the name implies, a mega analysis aggregates the findings of available meta analyses. Munder and colleagues found a significant moderate effect of researcher allegiance. Researcher allegiance was consistent across patient populations, age groups, outcome measures, type of study design, and year of publication.
As the APA resolution indicates, psychotherapy is the informed and intentional application of clinical methods and interpersonal stances derived from established psychological principles. Evidence-based practice in psychotherapy is "the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences". The results of this mega analysis undermine the claim of some comparative outcome studies that suggest that one evidence-based psychotherapy is more effective than another.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org