Halstensen, K., Gjestad, R., Luyten, P., Wampold, B., Granqvist, P., Stålsett, G., & Johnson, S. U. (2021). Depression and mentalizing: A psychodynamic therapy process study. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 68(6), 705–718.
Mentalizing, or reflective functioning, refers to someone’s capacity to view themselves and others in terms of mental states (i.e., behaviors are interpreted in terms of feelings, wishes, desires, values, and goals). This capacity underlies skills like empathy, emotion regulation, and interpersonal functioning. Diminished mentalizing can aggravate depressed mood through negative biases in one’s perceptions of others and relationships and might prevent the reflection needed to regulate emotions. Individuals with mentalizing deficits might hypo mentalize so that they are very uncertain about the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes that underlie their own and others’ behaviors. Such individuals may experience apathy associated with depression. Others might hyper mentalize, that is they are too certain about what goes on in the minds of others, which means they may misinterpret or misunderstand the intentions and behaviors of others. Such individuals can experience chronic emptiness due to the lack of genuine connection with others. In this study, Halstensen and colleagues assessed if mentalizing predicted outcomes in 57 patients with treatment resistant depression who received inpatient therapy in Norway. This was a naturalistic study of intensive psychodynamic inpatient therapy. The average chronicity of depression was 11.7 years, all patients received previous unsuccessful psychological or medical treatment, and most had a comorbid diagnosis (e.g., panic disorder, social anxiety disorder). Measurements of mentalizing and depression were taken pre-treatment, during therapy, and up to one year post treatment. Depressive symptoms improved from pre-treatment to one year follow-up with a large effect (d = 1.47; α mean = −.09 per week, p = .001). The capacity to mentalize did not improve on average during that period, although there was a lot of individual variability in mentalizing scores. Interestingly, there was an increase in depressive symptoms at the outset of treatment that then declined significantly by post-treatment. Higher pre-treatment levels of mentalizing were associated with better depressive symptom outcomes (b = −16.80, p = .043), and those patients who improved their mentalizing capacity experienced stronger improvements in depressive symptoms.
Although all patients were severely and chronically depressed, their capacities to mentalize varied significantly (some had higher and others lower levels). Patients in this study who had a high initial level of mentalizing capacity profited most from the intensive therapy. They seemed to be able to engage in the emotional work associated with the initial phase of intensive inpatient treatment for depression. On the other hand, patients in this study who had low levels mentalizing skills were likely to be non-responsive to intensive treatment. Patients with limited mentalizing capacity may require more support and more work to help them develop the reflective capacities necessary to understand their own and others’ behaviors in terms mental states.