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
Does Treatment Fidelity Lead to Better Patient Outcomes?
Alexandersson, K., Wågberg, M., Ekeblad, A., Holmqvist, R., & Falkenström, F. (2022) Session-to-session effects of therapist adherence and facilitative conditions on symptom change in CBT and IPT for depression. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2022.2025626.
There has been a long-standing debate in psychotherapy about whether a therapist’s capacity to be adherent to treatment manual and to be competent in delivering specific treatment interventions leads to better patient outcomes. Some argue that rigid adherence may lead to worse outcomes, and meta-analytic research suggests that specific treatment adherence or competence has no impact on outcomes. Others argue that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) and the therapeutic alliance plays a more important role in whether patients get better. It is possible that psychotherapy research designs and rudimentary data analytic methods obscure the effects of therapist treatment adherence. In this study, Alexandersson and colleagues collected data from a randomized controlled trial of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for depression. The researchers rated therapist behaviors (adherence to the treatment manual, facilitative behaviors) from recorded therapy sessions. They also assessed patient ratings of the therapeutic alliance after every session. Alexandersson and colleagues used a statistical modeling procedure that allowed them to look specifically at the effects of therapist adherence in a previous session on a patient’s depressive symptoms in a subsequent session. Their results did not show any effects of therapists’ use of specific CBT or IPT techniques on patient outcomes. Facilitative therapist behaviors in a previous session predicted better patient outcomes in the next session for CBT but not for IPT. The effects of facilitative therapist behaviors on outcomes were partially explained by levels of the therapeutic alliance. That is, facilitative behaviors among CBT therapists led to higher therapeutic alliance ratings by patients, which in turn led to lower patient depression scores in the subsequent session.
The authors were a little surprised that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) led to better outcomes in CBT but not in IPT. They speculated that therapist relational competence might be especially relevant early in CBT to facilitate a strong alliance, which in turn reduces depressive symptoms among patients. The demanding tasks of CBT (behavioral activation, homework) might mean that therapists’ warmth, support and engagement are important precursors to patients benefitting from the therapy.
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 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.
Is Exposure Necessary to Treat PTSD?
Markowitz, J.C., Petkova, E., Neria, Y., Van Meter, P.E., Zhao, Y., … Marshall, R.D. (2015). Is exposure necessary? A randomized controlled trial of Interpersonal Psychotherapy for PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172, 1-11.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. PTSD has a lifetime prevalence of 6.8%, which makes it a highly prevalent disorder. The main technique of empirically validated psychological treatments for PTSD involve exposing patients to safe reminders of the trauma including memories, with the intent of extinguishing the fear responses. This is the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with prolonged exposure, which is a consensus treatment for PTSD. However, not all patients benefit from CBT with prolonged exposure, and such treatment may be too difficult for some patients and therapists to tolerate. Markowitz and colleagues argued that PTSD symptoms reflect interpersonal issues including interpersonal withdrawal, mistrust, and hypervigilence. Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a time-limited efficacious treatment for depression that was adapted for this study for non-exposure based non-CBT treatment of PTSD. IPT was modified so that the first half of treatment focused on recognizing, naming, and expressing feelings in non-trauma related interpersonal situations. The second half of treatment focused on common IPT themes such as role disputes and role transitions. The authors argued that IPT helps individuals with PTSD gain mastery over social interactions and mobilize social supports. The authors conducted a randomized controlled trial that had a sufficient sample size to test a hypothesis of “non-inferiority”, that is to adequately test if PTSD and exposure based CBT were equally effective. Both treatments were compared to a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) control condition. In all, 110 participants with chronic PTSD were recruited and randomized to IPT, CBT, or PMR. Most patients reported trauma of 14 years duration from either sexual or physical abuse, and half had a current comorbid depression. All three interventions resulted in large significant reductions in PTSD symptoms. IPT (63%) and CBT (47%) were not significantly different in rates of response (i.e., in which response was defined as 30% improvement in a clinician administered PTSD scale), but IPT had a significantly higher response rate than PMR (38%). Patients with comorbid depression were more likely to drop out of CBT with prolonged exposure than IPT.
The results of the study suggest that IPT and CBT with exposure were equally effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD. It is important to keep in mind that this is one well-conducted trial that needs to be replicated by independent researchers in order to establish if the findings are truly reliable. Nevertheless, the findings contradict the widespread belief that patients with PTSD require exposure-based treatment in order to improve. IPT may be another option for the treatment of PTSD, especially for patients who cannot tolerate the prolonged exposure. Patients with comorbid depression may have the most difficulty tolerating prolonged exposure therapy, and so they may benefit from IPT as an alternative. IPT may help patients gain abilities in social interactions and social support, which may make it easier for them to spontaneously expose themselves to recollections of trauma.
Interpersonal Psychotherapy and Cognitive Therapy for Depression
Lemmens, L.H.J.M., Arntz, A., Peeters, F., Hollon, S.D., Roefs, A., & Huibers, M.J.H. (2015). Clinical effectiveness of cognitive therapy v. interpersonal psychotherapy for depression: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Medicine, doi:10.1017/S0033291715000033
Generally, I prefer to report on meta analyses rather than individual studies mainly because findings from meta analyses are based on a larger number of studies and so are more reliable (see my November, 2013 blog). However, this study by Lemmens and colleagues represents a large clinical trial of 182 depressed patients who were randomized to cognitive therapy (CT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), or a no-treatment control condition. The size of the trial provided the study with enough statistical power to test a hypothesis of non-inferiority of treatments. (A statistical note: A study finding of “non-inferiority” between treatments is sometimes unreliable because it is easier to detect such a finding with a small or poorly designed study. Studies with larger sample sizes provide greater statistical power, which in part makes a non-inferiority finding more reliable). A previous meta analysis showed both CT and IPT to be equally effective interventions for major depression. However, none of the studies in that meta analysis had sufficiently large sample sizes to reliably detect non-inferiority of interventions, none reported outcomes after post-treatment, and none of the studies used a no-treatment comparison condition. In their study, Lemmens and colleagues provided 16 to 20 sessions of individual therapy (45 minutes in length) to participants who met criteria for major depressive disorder. CT was based on Beck’s model and focused on identifying and altering cognitions, schemas, and attitudes associated with negative affect. IPT seeks to understand the social and interpersonal context of a patient’s depressive symptoms, and helps the patient to solve the interpersonal problem or change their relation to the problem, which may result in a resolution of the depressive symptoms. The study by Lemmens and colleagues was well designed in which: patients were randomized to conditions (CT, IPT, wait-list), 10 licensed therapists were expertly trained (5 CT therapists, 5 IPT therapists), and the therapies were competently delivered. Depressive symptoms significantly decreased for patients in both CT and IPT conditions with large effects, and these findings remained stable to 5 months post treatment. There were no differences between CT and IPT at post treatments and follow up, and both treatments were more effective than the waitlist control condition. Half of the sample had clinical improvements in symptoms, and 37% of patients were without depressive symptoms at 1 year follow up.
CT and IPT did not differ in the treatment of depression in the short (post-treatment) and long term (follow up). The study does not address why two very different treatments led to similar positive outcomes. The authors suggest two possible reasons: (1) different specific treatment pathways led to similar results, or (2) change was driven by factors common to both treatments like motivation and therapeutic alliance.