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
Matching Patients to Therapists’ Strengths
Constantino, M.J., Boswell, J.F., Coyne, A.E., Swales, T.P., & Kraus, D.R. (2021). Effect of matching therapists to patients vs assignment as usual on adult psychotherapy outcomes: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, doi: 10:1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.1221.
We know that about 60% of patients do not benefit fully from the psychotherapy they receive and that therapists differ in their effectiveness. In one study, above average therapists were twice as effective as below average therapists. In fact, most therapists are reliably effective for some presenting problems, but not for all. What if we could match a patient to a therapist based on what the therapist is good at? In this unique study in a large mental health treatment network, Constantino and colleagues evaluated the past effectiveness of 48 therapists who treated at least 5 patients each across a variety of patient problem domains. The authors identified those patient problem domains for which each therapist was reliably effective or ineffective using valid psychometric measures. Then the researchers randomly assigned 218 patients in the mental health treatment network to receive care as usual (patients were assigned to therapists based on which therapist was available at the time of referral), or to receive treatment from a therapist who was reliably effective for the patient’s problems. Out of 9 possible patient problem domains, therapists had an average of 1.56 (SD = 1.66) patient domains for which they were reliably effective and an average of 0.96 (SD = 1.65) patient problem domains for which they were reliably ineffective. Over 87% of therapists had at least one strength on which they could be matched to a patient, and 10.4% were reliably ineffective for all patient problem domains. To a moderate degree, patients treated by a therapist matched to their problem domain experienced greater weekly reductions in their general impairment compared with patients in the care as usual group (d = 0.75). Relative to their own average outcomes, a therapist achieved better patient outcomes when treating a matched patient than when treating a care as usual patient.
This is the first study of its kind and so it needs to be replicated. Most therapists had a few patient domains for which they were effective. About 10% of therapists were ineffective across all patient domains. The results of the trial suggested that therapists are likely more effective with some patients than others, depending on the patient’s problems. Therapists should assess their outcomes with a range of patient problems and evaluate their effectiveness using valid psychometric instruments. If a therapist finds that they are less effective with some patients, then the therapist should receive more training and supervision for treating that patient problem.
The Emotionally Burdened Psychotherapist
Nissen-Lie, H. A., Orlinsky, D. E., & Rønnestad, M. H. (2021). The emotionally burdened psychotherapist: Personal and situational risk factors. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
To provide good treatment, a psychotherapist must have enough mental and emotional energy to be attuned to the different states of their patients. However, sometimes emotional reserves of therapists can dwindle because of personal or professional burdens. As a result, many therapists report the experience of burnout that inevitably has a negative effect on their patients. Therapists’ personal burdens can be defined as stress in one’s personal life, feeling worry or concern, experiencing conflict within one’s family, or loss of a loved one. These therapist personal burdens could be enduring vulnerabilities or short-lived stressors, but they nevertheless have an impact on the therapist’s effectiveness. Higher stress in a therapist’s personal life is related to more avoidant coping, and lower capacity to stay focused, engaged, and empathic with patients. In this large-scale survey of over 12,000 psychotherapists worldwide (e.g., Norway, US, Canada, UK, Australia, Denmark, China), Nissen-Lie and colleagues looked to identify past and current personal and situational factors that were linked to the experience of personal burden among psychotherapists. The therapists were mostly married or in a committed relationship (72%), half were psychologists, the average length of clinical practice was 12 years (SD = 9.2), and therapists worked almost evenly across the major theoretical orientations (including CBT, psychodynamic, systemic, and behavioral). The most salient predictors of personal burden among psychotherapists were: current health and financial worries, early trauma or abuse, attachment anxiety (i.e., concern about abandonment and difficulty regulating negative emotions), dominant and demanding behavior in relationships, lower work satisfaction, and younger age. Cumulatively, these variables accounted for a substantial amount (30%) of the variance in personal burden.
Increasingly, research is pointing to negative life events and work experiences that may limit a therapists’ capacity to be engaged and empathic with patients. Focus on therapist well-being should be an important part of clinical training and supervision. Previous research found that receiving personal therapy, obtaining clinical supervision, working shorter hours, and lower caseloads improved empathy and wellbeing among psychotherapists.
Does Clinical Training Lead to Greater Therapist Interpersonal Skills?
Wolfer, C., Visla, A., Held, J., Hilpert, P., & Fluckiger, C. (2021). Assessing interpersonal skills—A comparison of trainee therapists' and students' interpersonal skills assessed with two established assessments for interpersonal skills. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 28, 226-232.
Differences between therapists may account for 2% to 8% of the variance in patient mental health outcomes. This seems like a small amount, but the effect is as large as the specific effects caused by interventions of any therapeutic orientation. One of the factors that accounts for differences between therapists is therapist interpersonal skills such as empathy, respectfulness, warmth, openness, and willingness to collaborate. These skills can be learned and likely allow some individuals to be more effective when encountering challenging or complex interpersonal situations. One might think that such skills would be a pre-requisite for entering psychotherapy training, but that may not be the case. A study of training therapists found that more than half of novices were unhelpful to their patients. In this study by Wolfer and colleagues, the authors were interested in seeing if therapists at different stages of training had different levels of these important interpersonal skills. That is, do trainees as a higher level of training acquire more of these skills than those prior to receiving training. This was a small study comparing 19 therapists in clinical training versus 17 students in psychology but with no clinical training. Clinical trainees were in the program for at least 2 years, and received many hours of supervision. All participants watched a video recording of difficult patient statements. Participants’ reactions to the patient video were recorded and then trained raters coded the responses for level of interpersonal skills. Trainee therapists scored significantly higher than students on two scales of interpersonal skills, even after controlling for age. In fact, trainee therapists were over 13 times more likely to demonstrate facilitative interpersonal skills than untrained students. Although being in a clinical training program was associated with greater interpersonal skills, level of experience of clinical trainees (range 2 to 5 years of training) was not related to the level of interpersonal skills.
This is a relatively small study, so one should consider the findings quite cautiously. Nevertheless, it is one of the few studies to assess interpersonal skills in therapists. It is possible that only those with more interpersonal skills choose to be trained as clinicians – that is, only especially skilled students may go on to receive clinical training. However, the trainees’ substantial amount of clinical training (observing clinicians handle complex situations, receiving supervision to enhance self-reflection) may have facilitated growth in their interpersonal skills. As in previous research, clinical experience alone was not related to therapist interpersonal skill.
How Does Therapy Harm?
Curran, J., Parry, G.D., Hardy, G.E., Darling, J., Mason, A-M., Chambers, E. (2019). How Does therapy harm? A model of adverse process using task analysis in the meta-synthesis of service users’ experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 10:347. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00347
Forty to 60% of patients do not recover after a course of psychotherapy, and approximately 5% to 8.2% are worse off. In the National Health Service in the UK, 5% of patients reported lasting bad effects of therapy. Although these appear to be small percentages, they represent a large number of patients. In Canada for example, over 1 million Canadians use psychotherapy each year, so 5% would represent 50,000 individuals. Therapists, for their part are poor at identifying patients who deteriorate in therapy. In this meta-synthesis of qualitative research, Curren and colleagues aimed to derive a model based on patients’ experiences of the factors that lead to negative outcomes. They conducted a narrative review of qualitative research findings and of patients’ testimony from a number of sources. They noted eight domains identified by patients that are associated with adverse events in psychotherapy. First, contextual factors refer organizational issues that affect access to or choice of therapy, cultural validity of the therapy, and lack of information about services. Second, pre-therapy factors refer to poor pre-therapy contracting between therapist and patient, and therapists that focus on symptoms rather than the client as a person. Third, therapist factors refer to therapist inflexibility, and therapists’ financial interests that influence their decisions about therapy. Fourth, client factors refer to client lack of understanding of therapy, fear, and demoralization. Fifth, relationship factors refer to a poor relational fit between therapist and patient, therapists perceived as shaming, therapists misusing power, and clients not feeling heard or understood. Sixth, therapist behaviors refer to boundary violations, rigidly applying techniques, therapist acting out, and therapist passivity. Seventh, therapy process refers to the type of therapy offered not matching patient needs, and patients not agreeing with the techniques. Eighth, endings refer to short term therapies that “open a can of worms” without resolution, and the client feeling abandoned.
Therapists would do well to ensure that the patient’s voice is heard when it comes to preferences and cultural validity of the treatment. In particular, therapists should not rigidly apply techniques focused exclusively on symptom reduction. Instead, therapists should see patients’ problems within their interpersonal and cultural context and focus on outcomes related to the quality of life of patients. Therapists must attend to developing and maintaining the therapeutic alliance (agreement on tasks and goals of the therapy, and the relational bond with patients). Any signs of disruptions or tensions in the alliance should be identified and repaired. Patients require information about the therapy, what it entails, and how it will end before signing on to a course of treatment. Organizations must remove barriers to accessing treatment and provide therapies that represent a range of orientations and foci to meet patients’ needs.
Supervision in Psychotherapy: The Impact of Attachment on Burnout
Hiebler-Rager, M., Nausner, L., Blaha, A., Grimmer, K., Korlath, S., Mernyi, M., & Unterrainer, H.F. (2020). The supervisory relationship from an attachment perspective: Connections to burnout and sense of coherence in health professionals. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Online First Publication: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2494.
Health professionals including psychotherapists are susceptible to burnout due to the emotional challenges of the work. There is some research indicating that with good supervision trainees and experienced therapists might be less susceptible to burnout (i.e., exhaustion, inefficiency, cynicism) and might gain a greater sense of personal coherence (i.e., that stressful events encountered in life are predictable and manageable, and that managing these events is personally meaningful). Supervision involves a senior qualified practitioner providing an intensive relationship-based education and training focused on supporting, guiding, and teaching a trainee or colleague. One can argue that the supervisory relationship provides the supervisee with a secure base from which to learn and grow as a professional. This secure base functions similar to an attachment relationship, which means that the bond, trust, agreement, and clarity of supervisory goals are key. That is, when a critical incident occurs in the therapy, the supervisee experiences stressful emotions and seeks support and security from the supervisor. One factor that may affect this process is the pre-existing level of attachment insecurity in the trainee (i.e., being too preoccupied with relationships or being too dismissing of relationships). Greater attachment insecurity may make it more difficult for supervisees to experience supervision as a safe environment. In this study, Hiebler-Rager and colleagues assessed if the quality of the supervisory relationship reported by supervisees predicted their level of burnout and of cohesion, and also if supervisees’ level of attachment insecurity also predicted these outcomes over and above the effects of supervision. The sample included 346 supervisees with a wide range of experience (0 to 50 years), ages (23 to 80 years), and professions who completed questionnaires about the supervisory relationship, attachment, burnout, and cohesion. Even after controlling for number of supervision sessions and supervisees’ clinical experience, lower quality of the supervisory relationship was related higher levels of burnout (β = −.31) and a lower sense of coherence (β = .31; both p < .01) in the supervisee. Higher levels of insecure attachment of the supervisee also predicted higher burnout (attachment anxiety: β = .30, p < .01) and lower coherence (attachment anxiety: β = −.40, p < .01; attachment avoidance:β = −.17, p < .01), even after controlling for the effects of number of supervisions sessions, experience, and the quality of the supervisory relationship. Adding attachment insecurity was associated with a medium to large incremental effect over and above the quality of the supervisory experience (R-square change = 0.13 for burnout, and 0.24 for coherence).
Supervision is a key manner in which psychotherapists are trained, and in which many participate in continuing education. A good quality supervisory relationship (secure and supportive) can help professionals mitigate the risk of burnout and to have a greater sense of personal coherence. However, some of the utility of supervision may depend to some extent on the supervisee’s own level of attachment insecurity. If a supervisee experiences an insecure attachment generally, they may require personal therapy to work on their sense of security in relationships and their ability to manage theirs and others’ emotions.
Why Does Where a Patient Lives Affect Their Outcomes in Psychotherapy?
Firth, N., Saxon, D., Stiles, W. B., & Barkham, M. (2019). Therapist and clinic effects in psychotherapy: A three-level model of outcome variability. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(4), 345–356.
Patients vary in their outcomes from receiving psychotherapy. That is some patients receive more benefit than others or receive benefit more quickly than others. Previous research indicates that factors like higher symptom severity and socioeconomic deprivation are factors that lead to poorer outcomes. There is also evidence that some therapists are more effective than others so that 5% to 10% of patient outcomes depend on which therapist the patient sees. There is also research showing that the location of the clinic may reflect systematic differences in patient outcomes. This may be due to differences in clinic patient populations, to therapist recruiting practices, resource allocation, and accessibility. Research in population health suggest that local neighborhoods affect physical health. In this large study of over 26,000 patients receiving psychological therapy in the United Kingdom (UK) health system, Firth and colleagues estimated how much of patient outcomes were due to differences among patients, differences among therapists, and difference among clinics. Patients received person-centred, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or supportive therapies. Drop-out rates from therapy was 33%. Average age of patients was 38.4 years (SD = 12.94) and 69.3% were women. Most patients experienced anxiety (71.8%) and/or depression (54%). There were 462 therapists in the study working at 30 clinics throughout the UK. Up to 58.4% of patients who provided post-treatment data (i.e., completed therapy) showed reliable and clinically meaningful improvement, but there were large differences in patient improvement rates across the clinics (range: 23.4% to 75.2%) and across therapists (6.7% to 100%). Patient severity explained a large proportion of therapist differences. That is, whereas many therapists were effective with less severely symptomatic patients, relatively fewer therapists were effective with more severely symptomatic patients. Patient unemployment, location of the clinic in a more economically deprived area, and the proportion non-White patients in the area explained most of the differences between clinics. Patients who were employed and living in an economically advantaged neighborhood composed of mostly White residents had better outcomes.
We know from previous research that some therapists are more effective than others and these differences are more pronounced with more severely symptomatic patients. However, this study suggests that larger social factors like racism, systematic bias, and microaggressions also play a role in patient outcomes. Economic deprivation likely affects the level of funding and resources allocated to some clinics. Psychotherapists and funding sources need to take into account the broader socioeconomic, ethnic/racial, and geographic context in which the patient lives when planning and offering services to patients.