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
The Impact of Patient Suicide on Psychotherapists
Sandford, D.M., Kirtley, O.J., Thwaites, R., & O’Connor, R.C. (2021). The impact on mental health practitioners of the death of a patient by suicide: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 28, 261-294.
In the UK, it is estimated that up to 27% of those who commit suicide have been in contact with a mental health professional in the past year. Even though suicide is a rare event, a mental health practitioner is likely to experience at least one instance of a patient suicide during their career. A psychotherapist who experiences a patient suicide could experience symptoms of burnout, PTSD, grief, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Sandford and colleagues conducted a systematic review of the existing research on the impact of a patient’s suicide, experiences of support by the practitioner, and factors that may minimize the negative impacts of patient suicide. They reviewed 54 quantitative and qualitative studies in order to synthesize the research. Professionals included psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, and other mental health professionals. The most common responses of professionals to a patient suicide were guilt, blame, shock, anger, sadness, and grief. Over 20% of practitioners met criteria for PTSD in some studies. Many practitioners across all studies reported some negative impact on their personal life, with 24% identifying severe emotional impact (lower mood, poor sleep). Following a patient suicide, practitioners reported an increased focus on risk assessment, greater caution in their practices, and increased self-doubt about their own judgement. The average practitioner reported an impact that lasted about 4 weeks. A closer therapeutic relationship with the patient, patients who were younger, and the fear of blame and litigation were each associated with a higher level of distress in therapists. However, the impact was not related to therapist gender, age, or experience. Most practitioners felt inadequately prepared for dealing with a patient suicide. But protective factors included support from colleagues, friends and family, and supportive supervision.
Even if suicide is a rare event in the population, an important minority of patients who commit suicide were in contact with a mental health professional in the preceding year. And so, one might expect to have a patient who commits suicide during one’s career that will have a negative impact on one’s own well-being and professional practice. Increased awareness of the incidence of suicide, informal social supports, and empathic supervision may mitigate the negative impacts. So will tailored training experiences on managing one’s own reactions to patients, as well as a professional work environment that is non-blaming and supportive.
Efficacy of Psychotherapies for Borderline Personality Disorder
Cristea, I.A., Gentili, C., Cotet, C.D., Palomba, D., Barbui, C., & Cuijpers, P. (2017). Efficacy of psychotherapies for borderline personality disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.4287.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a debilitating disorder characterized by: severe instability of emotions, relationships, and behaviors. More than 75% of those with BPD have engaged in deliberate self-harm, and suicide rates are between 8% and 10%. BPD is the most common of the personality disorders with a high level of functional impairment. Several psychotherapies have been developed to treat BPD. Most notably, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychodynamic treatments like mentalization-based and transference-focused psychotherapy. This meta-analysis by Cristea and colleagues examined the efficacy of psychotherapy for BPD. Studies included in the meta-analysis (33 trials of 2256 clients) were randomized controlled trials in which a psychotherapy was compared to a control condition for adults with BPD. For all borderline-relevant outcomes (combined borderline symptoms, self-harm, parasuicidal and suicidal behaviors) yielded a significant but small effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions at post treatment (g = 0.35; 95%CI: 0.20, 0.50). At follow up, there was again a significant effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions with a moderate effect (g = 0.45; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.75). When the different treatment types were looked at separately, DBT (g = 0.34; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.53) and psychodynamic approaches (g = 0.41; 95% CI: 0.12, 0.69) were more effective than control interventions, while CBT (g = 0.24; 95% CI: −0.01, 0.49) was not. The authors also reported a significant amount of publication bias, suggesting that published results may be positively biased in favor of the psychotherapies.
The results indicate a small effect of psychotherapies at post-treatment and a moderate effect at follow-up for the treatment of BPD. DBT and psychodynamic treatment were significantly more effective than control conditions, whereas CBT was not. However, all effects were likely inflated by publication bias, indicating a tendency to publish only positive findings. Nevertheless, various independent psychotherapies demonstrated efficacy for symptoms of self harm, suicide, and general psychopathology in BPD.
The Poor State of Psychotherapy Research for Indigenous People
Pomerville, A., Burrage, R.L., & Gone, J.P. (2016). Empirical findings from psychotherapy research with indigenous populations: A systematic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 1023-1038.
Indigenous people around the world have a higher incidence of mental illness compared to other ethnic or racial groups. These higher rates may be related to the historical effects of colonization and to current discrimination. Despite this, there is very little empirical research on psychotherapy provided to Indigenous peoples. Psychotherapy, as commonly practiced, has Eurocentric values by emphasizing individuality, independence, rationality, assertiveness, and by sometimes taking an ahistorical present-centered focus. These values may conflict with some Indigenous cultures that emphasize community, interdependence, mysticism, modesty, and the historical context of current functioning. Hence, psychotherapy as typically defined may require adaptations when used with Indigenous groups. In their review, Pomerville and colleagues examine what is currently known about psychotherapy with Indigenous populations. The populations studied in the existing research includes Indigenous peoples of the US, Australia, Canada, Pacific Islands, and New Zealand. There were no psychotherapy studies prior to 1986, and only 23 studies since then. Most studies emphasized some form of cultural adaptation of the treatment. The majority of studies focused on substance abuse, with only a few on anxiety and depression. Only two studies were controlled outcomes studies (i.e., randomized controlled trials considered by many to provide the best evidence from a single study). Research on individual therapy for Indigenous adolescents is completely lacking. The authors concluded that the efficacy of novel or adapted treatments or the generalizability of existing empirically supported treatments to Indigenous people are currently unknown.
The virtual absence of controlled outcome trials of psychotherapies for Indigenous populations is serious gap in the practice of mental health interventions. This state of the research is particularly problematic given the high rates of mental illness and alarming rates of suicide among adolescents in Indigenous populations. Some studies found discontent among Indigenous communities with the current application of empirically supported treatments, and others argue that Indigenous healing be given the same legitimacy despite no controlled outcome research. On the other hand some authors favour training cultural competence among clinicians who practice standard empirically supported treatments. Pomerville and colleagues suggest that in the absence of evidence, tailoring psychotherapy to address the needs of Indigenous clients by taking into account specific practices of their communities may improve retention and outcomes.
Direct Psychological Interventions Reduce Suicide and Suicide Attempts
Meerwijk, E.L., Parekh, A., Oquendo, M.A., Allen, I.E., Franck, L.S., & Lee, K.A. (2016). Direct versus indirect psychosocial and behavioural interventions to prevent suicide and suicide attempts: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry.
The World Health Organization reports that more than 800,000 people die of suicide per year around the world. However suicide prevention efforts over the past decade have fallen short of targets. In fact, the prevalence rates of suicide in the US have risen steadily since 2000 to about 1.3% of the population in 2014. Many who kill themselves have a mental disorder like depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, psychoses, or personality disorders. Best practices suggest that directly addressing suicidal thoughts and behaviors during treatment, rather than only addressing symptoms like depression and hopelessness, are most effective in reducing suicide. However, there are no meta analyses of randomized controlled trials that specifically assess the relative utility of direct versus indirect psychological interventions. In their meta analysis, Meerwijk and colleagues looked at psychosocial interventions aimed to prevent suicide or to treat mental illness associated with suicide. They included 31 studies representing over 13,000 participants. Interventions included cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), case management, social skills training, and supportive telephone calls. Depending on the target problem, the interventions either directly addressed suicidal behavior or they indirectly addressed suicidal behavior. Mean duration of treatment was over 11 months. Studies that looked at direct or indirect interventions were each compared to control groups that received some form of usual care in the community, or psychiatric management, or general practitioner care. Individuals who received usual care were 1.5 times more likely to die of or attempt suicide compared to those receiving direct or indirect psychological interventions. There was a 35% lower odds of suicide and attempts with direct interventions compared to usual care; and an 18% lower odds of suicide and attempts with indirect interventions compared to usual care. The difference between the effectiveness of direct versus indirect interventions was large (d = .77), suggesting that direct interventions were more effective than indirect interventions at reducing suicide and suicide attempts.
This is the largest meta analysis of its kind. Most direct interventions to prevent suicide and suicidal behaviors were based on CBT and DBT. Indirectly addressing suicide by focusing on depressive symptoms, anxiety, and hopelessness was somewhat effective compared to usual care. However, direct interventions that included talking about the patient’s suicidal thoughts and behaviors and how best to cope were most effective.
Organizational Factors That Reduce Suicide Rates in the Population
Kapur, N., Ibrahim, S., While, D., Baird, A.,... Appleby, L. (2016). Mental health service changes, organisational factors, and patient suicide in England in 1997–2012: a before-and-after study. The Lancet Psychiatry.
Suicide is a major cause of death worldwide, and many recent public health efforts have focused on suicide prevention. Many studies have looked at social, psychological, and biological factors that may cause suicide, but few studies have examined the effects of health service contexts on suicide rates. In this large retrospective population-based study, Kapur and colleagues looked at over 19,000 suicides that occurred within England’s health services from 1997 to 2012. This represented 26% of all suicides in England. The researchers: evaluated economic climate, surveyed the clinic administrators and clinicians involved, and they reviewed policy, service, and staffing changes at each time point. Health care in England is organized nationally through the National Health Service, and the government also collected confidential survey data on deaths by suicide between 1997 and 2012. The researchers examined if specific policy changes and organizational factors affected suicide rates. Health system changes such as: (a) implementing the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence depression guidelines, (b) making available crisis and home treatment teams, (c) implementing policies on transfer from youth to adult care and (d) new procedures for managing patients with dual diagnosis were all associated with reduced suicide rates during the study period. One of the most interesting findings was that these changes to the treatment and management of depression, youth, crises, and dual diagnoses were much more effective in reducing suicide rates under two organizational contexts: (1) when non-medical staff turnover was low, and (2) when there was greater reporting of patient safety incidents. Lower staff turnover likely means that patients in those organizations received greater continuity of care and that suicidal or depressed patients were more likely to receive treatment from highly trained and experienced professionals. Greater reporting of patient safety incidents tend to occur in organizations in which the staff feels sufficiently safe and secure to report and discuss negative clinical events without fear of reprisal or punishment. Such reflective practice is likely critical to increasing staff expertise in providing psychological treatment.
Psychotherapists often do not think about the organizational context within which they work when considering the treatment they provide to those with mental health issues including people who may attempt suicide. Yet many psychotherapists work within an organizational context (e.g., hospitals, group practices, clinics, community health care centers, etc.). The findings from this study indicate that stability in staffing (i.e. low turnover) and working within a system that encourages reporting and discussing negative events likely has a positive impact on mental health outcomes like suicide.
Common Factors Across 5 Therapies for Suicidal Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder
Sledge, W., Plukin, E.M., Bauer, S., Brodsky, B.,... Yoemans, F. (2014). Psychotherapy for suicidal patients with borderline personality disorder: An expert consensus review of common factors across five therapies. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 1:16. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-16.
Treating patients with suicidal ideation and borderline personality disorder (BPD) can cause significant anxiety, concern, anger, and guilt in clinicians. Strong emotional reactions can lead to risky therapeutic interventions, poor clinical decisions, and professional burn out. The outcome of therapy can have serious consequences for such patients. Recently, a panel of 13 experts reviewed the efficacy of the most common treatments for suicidal ideation in BPD. As part of the review, they identified the common factors that may be useful for all clinicians who work with these clients. The five therapies they reviewed included the following. Dialectical behavior therapy, which emphasizes the role of emotional dysregulation and impulsivity in suicide. Treatment includes distress tolerance, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness. Schema therapy decreases suicide risk by challenging negative thoughts with cognitive and behavioral techniques while using the therapeutic relationship to improve the patient’s capacity to attach to others. Mentalization based therapy works toward improving the patient’s capacity to keep in mind the patient’s own mind and the mind of the other. This encourages new perspectives on relationships and emotion regulation. Transference focused psychotherapy views suicidal behavior in BPD as related to distorted images of the self and others. The treatment emphasizes gaining greater awareness of self in relation to others, and integrating a more realistic experience of the self. Good psychiatric management is an integrative approach that uses both psychodynamic and behavioral concepts. The approach sees BPD as a problem with interpersonal hypersensitivity, but the management tends to be more pragmatic than theoretically based. The expert panel defined six common factors among these treatments. (1) Negotiation of a frame for treatment – in which roles and responsibilities of therapist and patient are defined before the start of treatment, including an explicit crisis plan. (2) Recognition of the patient’s responsibilities within therapy. (3) The therapist having a clear conceptual framework for understanding the disorder that then guides the interventions. (4) Use of the therapeutic relationship to engage the patient and to address suicide actively and explicitly. (5) Prioritizing suicide as a topic whenever it comes up in the therapy. (6) Providing support for the therapist through supervision, consultation, and peer support.
Suicidal ideation in patients with BPD can have serious consequences for the patient and can be highly stressful for the clinician. This expert panel identified six common features of most major treatment approaches to suicidal ideation in BPD. Even if clinicians are not explicitly trained in any one of the approaches, ensuring that these six factors are present in their work will improve the likelihood that their patients will experience a good outcome.