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
Adding Short-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy to Antidepressants
Driessen, E., Fokkema, M., Dekker, J.J.M., Peen, J., Van, H.L…. Cuijpers, P. (2022). Which patients benefit from adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressants in the treatment of depression? A systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. Psychological Medicine.
Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (STPP) and anti-depressant medications are both considered empirically supported treatments for depression. And there have been several trials demonstrating the efficacy of long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy for treatment-resistant depression. Despite this research, it remains unclear which patient might benefit from anti-depressant medication alone and which patient might benefit from adding STPP to the antidepressants. The best use of scarce resources makes this an important question. There are challenges to doing a meta-analysis of patient characteristics that predict different outcomes in antidepressants alone versus antidepressants plus STPP. A key challenge is that common meta-analyses use study-level data (an overall summary of the effect size found in a study), and so statistical power often is limited by the small number of studies. The unique aspect of this study by Driessen and colleagues is that they conducted a meta-analysis of patient-level data. That is, they got individual patient data from the authors of the seven studies that specifically tested the effects of antidepressants alone vs antidepressants plus STPP. So instead of being limited by seven summary effect size statistics, the authors had a sample of 482 patient effect sizes to work with. The effect of adding STPP to antidepressants was larger for participants with high rather than low baseline depression scores [B = −0.49, 95% CI: −0.61 to −0.37, p < 0.0001], for participants with ⩽8 rather than more years of education (B = −0.66, 95% CI −1.05 to −0.27, p < 0.0009), and for participants with a depressive episode duration of >2 years rather than <1 year (B = −0.68, 95% CI −1.31 to −0.05, p = 0.03) or less than 1–2 years (B = −0.86, 95% CI −1.66 to −0.06, p = 0.04). At follow-up, higher baseline depression scores and longer depressive episode duration were still associated with better outcomes for those receiving a combination of antidepressants plus STPP.
The results of this patient-level meta-analysis suggests that adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressant medication might be particularly efficacious for patients with higher initial levels of depression and/or with longer duration of depressive symptoms. It is possible that the addition of a psychological treatment like STPP may tackle some of the underlying psychological vulnerabilities whose treatment is necessary for those who have more persistent and severe depressive symptoms.
The Efficacy of Psychotherapies and Pharmacotherapies for Mental Disorders in Adults
Leichsenring, F., Steinert, C., Rabung, S., & Ionidis, J.P. (2022). The efficacy of psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies for mental disorders in adults: an umbrella review and meta-analytic evaluation of recent meta-analyses. World Psychiatry, 21, 133-135.
Estimates of the efficacy of psychological or pharmacological treatments depend in part on to what they are compared. One might expect, for example, that these first line treatments for mental disorders may appear more effective if compared to no treatment and may appear less effective when compared to treatment as usual or a placebo. Reviews indicate that compared to no treatment, psychotherapies demonstrate a moderate effect (g = .67). However, some argue that comparisons to no treatment represent “weak” controls that over-estimate the efficacy of treatments. Compounding this problem is that poorly designed randomized controlled trials tend to result in larger estimates of effects in favor of the treatments. In this large umbrella review, Leichsenring and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials in which psychotherapy and medications are compared to no treatment, treatment as usual, placebo, and to each other. Different forms of psychotherapy (CBT, psychodynamic, interpersonal, EFT) were included. This meta-review had 3,782 randomized controlled trials representing 650,514 patients with a range of mental disorders (depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, PTSD…). The authors’ analyses resulted in a standardized mean difference (SMD) of 0.34 (95% CI: 0.26-0.42) for psychotherapies and 0.36 (95% CI: 0.32-0.41) for pharmacotherapies compared with placebo or TAU. Usually, this is interpreted as a small effect such that about 7 patients need to be treated before one achieves remission. The SMD for head-to-head comparisons of psychotherapies vs. pharmacotherapies was 0.11 (95% CI: –0.05 to 0.26) indicating no significant difference between the two types of treatments. The SMD for the combined psychotherapy and medication compared to either monotherapy (psychotherapy alone or medications alone) was 0.31 (95% CI: 0.19-0.44), suggesting that some patients achieve better outcomes if they got combined treatment, but again the effect is small. A troubling finding of this meta-review was that between 1% and 17% of studies were high quality, meaning that most studies likely resulted in biased (inflated) results for both treatments.
Psychotherapy and medications, or their combination as practiced in randomized controlled trials appear to help a relatively modest proportion of patients. Most of these trials involved short term highly manualized interventions that do not address the diversity and complexity of patients seen by psychotherapists in real world practices. For example, studies in clinically representative contexts show that most patients require many more therapy sessions than provided in clinical trials. Psychotherapy researchers and clinicians need to refocus efforts on therapeutic factors (therapeutic alliance, progress monitoring) and therapist interpersonal stances (interpersonal skill, empathy, countertransference management) that likely impact patient mental health outcomes.
Adding Psychotherapy to Pharmacotherapy for Depression
Guidi, J. & Fava, G.A. (2021). Sequential combination of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy in major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 78, 261-269.
A sequential model of treatment suggests that one apply two treatments consecutively in order to reduce relapse of symptoms. This might include pharmacotherapy followed by psychotherapy, or vice versa. One reason to consider a second consecutive treatment for depression is that many individuals continue to have symptoms after a first treatment, and having residual symptoms is related to higher relapse rates. Another reason is that many with depressive disorders have comorbid symptoms of anxiety or other disorders, and so one course of treatment may not be enough for such complex situations. In this study, Guidi and Fava conducted a meta-analysis to examine if sequential combination of medications and psychotherapy reduced the risk of relapse for major depression. They reviewed 17 randomized controlled trials representing 2283 adult patients that examined the sequential use of psychotherapy following medications. The primary outcome was remission of depressive symptoms. The methodological quality of the studies was high. After adjusting for publication bias, the sequential approach was significant (RR = 0.885; 95% CI, 0.793-0.988), indicating that sequencing treatment resulted in a lower risk of relapse or recurrence. Continuing versus discontinuing medications during psychotherapy did not result in any advantage for patients. However, providing psychotherapy while continuing with antidepressant medications reduced rates of relapse and recurrence, RR = 0.821 (95% CI, 0.710-0.949).
The chronic and recurrent nature of major depression is an important clinical challenge. The results of Guidi and Fava’s meta-analysis suggests that adding psychotherapy following pharmacotherapy, either alone or in combination with pharmacotherapy, will reduce the risk of relapse from major depression. Discontinuing medications is reasonable after adding psychotherapy in order to help patients with major depression to stay symptom free. The results support the notion that psychotherapy results in patients acquiring skills to regulate their emotions, and that this might result in reduced relapse of depressive symptoms. Such skill acquisition does not take place with pharmacotherapy alone.
Adding Psychodynamic Therapy to Antidepressant Medications
Dreissen, E., Dekker, J.J.M., Peen, J., Van, H.L., Maiana, G…. Cuijpers, P. (2020). The efficacy of adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressants in the treatment of depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. Clinical Psychology Review, 80.
Depression is the single largest contributor to disability worldwide. There are a number of established treatments for depression including antidepressant medications and psychotherapies. One of the psychological treatments that is evidence-based is short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (STPP). There is evidence in the general psychotherapy research literature that combining psychotherapy with antidepressant medications is more efficacious than providing medications alone. However, no meta-analysis has looked specifically at adding STPP to antidepressant medication. In this meta-analysis Driessen and colleagues analysed data from 7 studies that compare STPP plus medications versus antidepressant medications alone, or that compare STPP plus medications versus supportive therapy plus medications. Although the number of studies was small, the unique aspect of this meta-analysis is that Driessen and colleagues were able to get all of the individual level data from each study, so they were able to analyse data from 482 participants. Typical meta analyses only look at study level data (effects reported from the study as a whole) and not individual level data (effects for each individual who participant in each study). So, the results from Driessen and colleagues’ study provides a more precise and specific analysis of the findings. Combined treatment of STPP and antidepressant medications was significantly more efficacious than antidepressants with and without supportive therapy at post-treatment, but the effects were small (d = 0.26, SE = 0.01, p = .01). At follow up, combined treatment of STPP and antidepressant medications was again more efficacious than antidepressant medications and supportive therapy, but the effects were moderately large (d = 0.50, SE = 0.10). Other findings also suggested that STPP’s specific interventions provided significant added benefit over and above the non-specific effects of supportive therapy. The findings were consistent whether or not analyses were done on studies with complete versus incomplete data, controlling for baseline depression scores, and use or not of a treatment manual. Overall, the quality of the studies was good, and the findings were stable across studies.
People with depression and their clinicians might expect better outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms if they combine STPP and antidepressant medications, rather than receiving medications alone. The benefits might be related to the specific interventions of STPP, which suggests that therapists may need specific training and supervision in order to make the most of STPP’s effectiveness.
Psychotherapy, Pharmacotherapy, and their Combination for Adult Depression
Cuijpers, P., Noma, H., Karyotaki, E., Vinkers, C.H., Cipriani, A., & Furukawa, T.A. (2020). A network meta‐analysis of the effects of psychotherapies, pharmacotherapies and their combination in the treatment of adult depression. World Psychiatry, 19, 92-107.
Mental disorders represent a significant health burden worldwide, with over 350 million people affected. Depression is the second leading cause of disease burden. There is ample evidence that psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies are effective in the treatment of depression. There is also evidence for the efficacy of different types of psychotherapy (CBT, IPT, PDT), and for different types of antidepressant medications. Some research suggests that combining psychotherapy and medications is better than either intervention alone, but the evidence is inconclusive. Existing meta analyses only compare two existing treatments directly to each other at a time: psychotherapy vs medications, psychotherapy vs combined treatments, medications vs combined treatments. In this meta-analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues use a method called “network meta-analysis” to study the relative impact of medications, psychotherapy, or their combination. Network meta-analysis is controversial because it relies on indirect comparisons to estimate effects. For example, let’s say one study compared medications (A) to psychotherapy (B), and another study compared medication (A) to combination treatment (C), then a network meta-analysis would estimate the effects of psychotherapy vs combination treatment by using the transitive principle (if A = B, and B = C, then A = C). This logic relies on everything being equivalent across studies. However, in treatment trials one cannot assume that the different studies comparing A, B, and C are equivalent in terms of quality and bias (in fact, we know they are not). In any case, Cuijpers and colleagues found that combined treatment was superior to either psychotherapy alone or pharmacotherapy alone in terms of standardized effect sizes (0.30, 95% CI: 0.14-0.45 and 0.33, 95% CI: 0.20-0.47). No significant difference was found between psychotherapy alone and pharmacotherapy alone (0.04, 95% CI: –0.09 to 0.16). Interestingly, acceptability (defined as lower patient drop-out rate and better patient adherence to the treatment) was significantly better for combined treatment compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.23, 95% CI:
1.05-1.45), as well as for psychotherapy compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.17, 95% CI: 1.02-1.32). In other words, pharmacotherapy alone was less acceptable to patients than another treatment approach that included psychotherapy.
This network meta-analysis by a renowned researcher and in a prestigious journal adds to the controversy around the relative efficacy of psychotherapy vs medications vs their combination. What is clear is that patients find medication alone to be less acceptable as a treatment option, and previous research shows that patients are 4 times more likely to prefer psychotherapy over medications. Unfortunately, most people with depression receive medications without psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy or Pharmacology for the Treatment of PTSD
Merz, J., Schwarzer, G., & Gerger, H. (2019). Comparative efficacy and acceptability of pharmacological, psychotherapeutic, and combination treatments in adults with posttraumatic stress disorder: A network meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 76, 904-91.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a highly debilitating disorder characterized by re-experiencing trauma, avoidance of situations related to the trauma, negative mood and cognitions, and hyperarousal. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the population is about 8%, and PTSD is associated with a great deal of medical problems, and social and economic burden. Difference between a variety of psychological treatment approaches for PTSD are small and not statistically significant. Some treatment guidelines tend to recommend both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy to treat PTSD, but other guidelines indicate only psychotherapy as the first-line treatment. Merz and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis to examine comparative outcomes and acceptability of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy and their combination in adults with PTSD. The authors focused on randomized controlled trials because these designs tend to produce the most reliable evidence. The authors identified 12 published studies with a total of 922 participants. Six of the studies included data on long term outcomes. The meta-analytic procedures that the authors used in this study included network meta-analyses (which some have argued may produce unreliable results) and direct comparison meta-analysis (which is more reliable, but resulted in fewer studies being included here). I report in this blog only results that were consistent between the network and direct comparison analyses. Pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatments and their combinations were not significantly different in their effectiveness immediately post-treatment. However, at long-term follow-up psychotherapy was significantly more beneficial than pharmacotherapy (SMD, −0.63; 95% CI, −1.18 to −0.09). Combined psychotherapy plus pharmacotherapy was not significantly more effective that pharmacotherapy alone (SMD, −1.02; 95% CI, −2.77 to 0.72), and combined treatment was not more effective that psychotherapy alone (SMD, 0.06; 95% CI, −0.31 to 0.42). There were also no statistically significant differences between psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, or their combination in the acceptability of treatments to participants as defined by differing rates of dropping out from the studies.
This meta-analysis of a small number of studies suggests that psychotherapy produces better long-term outcomes than pharmacotherapy for PTSD. There is also a suggestion that combining psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy does not improve outcomes compared to either treatment alone. This research area seems to be new and not well developed, but so far, the results seem to favor psychotherapy for longer term outcomes. These findings are similar to those from a larger meta-analysis for depression. In that study, the authors suggested that the long-term benefit of psychotherapy was due to participants learning coping and interpersonal skills that were not gained from receiving pharmacological intervention alone.