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
Patient Experience of Lasting Negative Effects of Psychotherapy
McQuaid, A., Sanatinia, R., Farquharson, L. et al. (2021). Patient experience of lasting negative effects of psychological interventions for anxiety and depression in secondary mental health care services: A national cross-sectional study. BMC Psychiatry, 21, 578. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-021-03588-2
One in six adults experience either depression or anxiety that affect their social functioning or quality of life. Most treatment guidelines indicate psychotherapy as a first line treatment for these common mental health problems because of the positive effects of therapy documented by research. Despite the effectiveness of psychotherapies, researchers pay little attention to potential negative impacts of psychological treatments. Negative effects might include worsening of symptoms, emergence of new symptoms, loss of self-esteem, among others. National surveys in the U.K. noted that 5% of patients reported lasting negative effects from psychological treatment. People who had preferences for therapy that were not met tended to have more negative effects, and service policy constraints may also influence patients’ experiences of negative effects. In this analysis of national survey data, McQuaid and colleagues considered all patients who completed therapy during a one-year period in the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K. These patients received treatment in a secondary care service – that is, a service for those with moderate to severe symptoms. The survey asked whether patients experienced lasting “bad” effects from the treatment, and the authors assessed several service policies and procedures as correlates of these negative experiences. Of those patients who received service, 662 (14.8%) responded to the survey. Overall, 14.1% reported “agreeing” that they experienced a lasting bad effect, and another 13.7% reported a “neutral” response to this item. The likelihood of reporting a neutral or lasting negative effect was greater among those who felt that they did not receive timely therapy (they waited too long, or it was too difficult to access services), who did not receive enough sessions of treatment (most of the therapy in the NHS is short-term), and whose therapists did not discuss the patient’s progress in therapy.
This study is not perfect by any means, but it does highlight system and service issues that may result in worsening of symptoms among patients, especially those with moderate to severe symptoms. Remaining on a wait list for too long may lead to worsening symptoms – which indicates that it might be best for some patients to be referred elsewhere if it is feasible. Not providing a sufficient dose of therapy (enough sessions) may also lead patient symptoms to be worse at the end of treatment. The disappointment and frustration associated with ending therapy too early may impact patients’ self-esteem, mood, and hopes for recovery. Clinicians might consider how much therapy they can offer before proceeding with someone who has moderate to severe symptoms. Finally, therapists should have regular discussions with patients about their progress and perhaps use progress monitoring as a tool to facilitate these discussions.
Working Alliance and Therapist Cultural Humility Reduce the Impact of Microaggressions
DeBlaere, C., Zelaya, D. G., Dean, J.-A. B., Chadwick, C. N., Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., & Owen, J. (2022, December 8). Multiple microaggressions and therapy outcomes: The indirect effects of cultural humility and working alliance with Black, Indigenous, Women of Color clients. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
A lack of culturally competent care can have negative impacts on therapy outcomes for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and for women who experience discrimination based on gender. Often these negative outcomes occur because of microaggressions – which are a form of alliance rupture in the therapeutic relationship caused by subtle, intentional, or unintentional messages that degrade BIPOC, women, and other historically excluded groups. The majority of BIPOC clients (81%) and women (53%) report experiencing a therapist microaggression over the course of psychotherapy. A therapist’s cultural humility (valuing the importance of culture in their client’s experience) and the therapeutic alliance (client-therapist collaborative agreement on tasks and goals of therapy) may reduce the negative impact of microaggressions committed by the therapist. This study by DeBlaere and colleagues looked at the association between microaggressions experienced by BIPOC women and therapy outcomes, and whether this association was reduced by higher levels of therapist cultural humility and therapeutic alliance. The clients were 288 BIPOC women who were treated by a psychotherapist (81% had a female therapist, and 46% had a White therapist). Both racial and gender microaggressions were associated with worse outcomes. Using structural equation modeling to assess indirect effects, the authors found a significant indirect effect of racial microaggressions (−.12, 95% CI [−.35, −.07]) and gender microaggressions (−.10, 95% CI [−.36, −.05]) on positive therapy outcomes, through both cultural humility and working alliance, accounting for 24% of the variance in outcomes. That is, the effect of microaggressions on outcomes was partly explained by the level of therapist cultural humility and by the therapeutic alliance. The most common racial microaggression reported by clients was: “My counselor avoided discussing or addressing cultural issues in our sessions”, and the most common gender microaggression was: “My therapist encouraged me to be less assertive so that I do not present myself as being aggressive”.
Unfortunately, therapist racial and gender microaggressions are common. However, therapists who practice cultural humility and who work at developing a therapeutic alliance may commit fewer microaggressions and can more easily mitigate the negative effects of microaggressions should they occur. Taking steps to develop cultural humility, strengthening the alliance, and repairing alliance ruptures through professional development may be ways of improving therapy outcomes for BIPOC women.
Therapists Report Less Therapeutic Skill in Telepsychology vs In Person Therapy
Lin, T., Stone, S. J., Heckman, T. G., & Anderson, T. (2021). Zoom-in to zone-out: Therapists report less therapeutic skill in telepsychology versus face-to-face therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychotherapy, 58, 449–459.
The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted psychotherapists with several challenges including rapidly switching their practice to using teletherapy (videoconferencing, phone, and other virtual media). The use of teletherapy in clinical work increased from 7.1% prior to the pandemic to 85.5% during the pandemic. And estimates suggest that at least one-third of clinical work will be performed by teletherapy post-pandemic. Over a third of psychologists reported that they lacked training in using teletherapy, and they believe that their skills in this domain are inadequate. Therapists have raised a number of concerns in past surveys including issues related to privacy, professional self-doubt, technological competence, challenges to the therapeutic relationship, and problems with implementing some interventions. In this survey of 440 therapists and trainees, Lin and colleagues were particularly interested in therapists’ perceptions of the impact of teletherapy relative to in person therapy on the therapeutic process and patient outcomes. Videoconferencing was the most frequently used modality by 73.56% of surveyed therapists. The survey asked if three broad areas of practice were affected by teletherapy compared to in person therapy. These areas included common therapeutic factors (level of therapist empathy, emotional expression, warmth, alliance bond), extra-therapeutic patient factors (the patient’s environment that impacted their ability to engage in homework or use prescribed resources), and perceived patient outcomes (therapist ratings of patient symptom reduction, satisfaction, clinical improvement). Therapists in the survey were representative of the population of therapists in the US, and 82% of them provided all their clinical work in recent months by teletherapy. Compared to in person therapy, therapists reported poorer skills related to common therapeutic factors (d = 0.86), somewhat greater impact of extra-therapeutic factors (d = 0.36), and perceived poorer patient outcomes (d = 0.68) in teletherapy. Therapists who were younger, preferred emotion-focused or relational therapies, and with no prior training reported a relatively greater decrease in therapeutic skills in teletherapy compared to in-person therapy.
By far, most therapists believed that providing psychotherapy by virtual means reduced their capacity to use common therapeutic stances including empathy, warmth, and the therapeutic alliance. Some of this might be affected by the psychological distance caused by the virtual format and difficulties with reading body language and other non-verbal cues. Therapists perceived that patient outcomes suffered as a result. This was particularly true for younger therapists, possibly because of the impact of adopting the new modality on their professional self-confidence. Also, therapists who preferred experiential or interpersonally based therapies felt particularly challenged possibly because these therapies may be more reliant on emotional communication and discerning patient interpersonal behaviors. Training and support are needed for therapists and trainees to improve their confidence in providing teletherapy.
Psychotherapist burnout affects patient outcomes
Delgadillo, J., Saxon, D., & Barkham, M. (2018). Associations between therapists’ occupational burnout and their patients’ depression and anxiety treatment outcomes. Depression and Anxiety, 35, 844-850.
Providing psychotherapy can be challenging for the therapist. Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue among psychotherapists are well documented. In addition, organizational conditions in publicly funded mental health programs like workload, safety issues, and lack of supervision and support can lead to higher rates of therapist burnout. Surveys document that between 21% and 67% of mental health workers experience burnout. Occupational burnout can take many forms, but it is typically defined as emotional exhaustion and disengagement that lead to lower levels of therapist empathy, engagement, and depersonalization. One could speculate that burnout among therapists leads to worse patient outcomes because of the impact of disengagement on the therapeutic alliance. However few if any studies examined the association between therapist burnout and patient mental health outcomes. In this study, Dalgillo and colleagues assessed therapist burnout and job satisfaction in 49 therapists, and they assessed depression and anxiety outcomes in 2223 of their patients. The therapists provided treatment as part of the UK’s Increasing Access to Psychotherapy (IAPT) program. The analyses controlled for therapist case mix. That means that differences between therapists’ caseload (patient level of impairment, social economic status, and severity of symptoms) were controlled so that the findings were unique to the effect of therapist burnout and job satisfaction on patient mental health outcomes. Higher therapist disengagement (an index of burnout) and lower therapist job satisfaction were significantly associated with poorer treatment outcomes for patients. In addition, higher burnout was related to lower job satisfaction among therapists.
This is one of the first studies to show a direct association between therapist burnout and low job satisfaction with patient mental health outcomes. It is possible that these findings are specific to the UK’s IAPT program, in which therapists might feel a lower sense of control over their work. Nevertheless, organizations need to design mental health delivery in such a manner as to enhance psychotherapist autonomy, coping, and resilience, as these are likely related to therapist burnout and poorer patient mental health outcomes.
Identifying Outcomes for Depression That Matter to Patients
Chevance, A., Ravaud, P., Tomlinson, A., Le Berre, C., Teufer, B., … Tran, V.T. (2020). Identifying outcomes for depression that matter to patients, informal caregivers, and health-care professionals: Qualitative content analysis of a large international online survey. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, 692-702.
One of the criticisms of mental health treatment research is that the outcomes measured in these studies are those that matter to researchers but may not matter as much to patients. Common outcome measures of depression like the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) or the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) were developed by researchers because of their relative ease of use, and their sensitivity to change following treatment. But these measures provide a narrow view of what it is like to experience depression because they focus only on a limited set of symptoms. But is symptom reduction the only thing that matters to patients and their loved ones? In this large-scale study by Chevance and colleagues, the authors surveyed over 1900 patients with a mood disorder, 464 informal caregivers (family members), and 627 health care providers from a wide range of mental health disciplines. The survey extended across dozens of countries and sampled a range of age groups. The authors asked patients open ended questions about what outcomes are important to them in the treatment of their depression, and then the responses were analyzed using a qualitative method. Chevance and colleagues identified two broad categories important to patients: symptoms and functioning. Regarding symptoms, patients identified several domains in which they wanted to experience improvements. These included: their perception of their self (e.g., self-esteem, self-confidence), physical symptoms (e.g., sleep, energy level), cognitive symptoms (e.g., social interest, cognitive distortions, motivation), emotional symptoms (e.g., mental pain, anxiety, sadness), and symptoms related to burden of suicidal thoughts. Regarding functioning, patients identified four domains in which they wished to see improvements. These included: elementary functioning (e.g., self-care, coping with daily tasks, autonomy), social functioning (e.g., social isolation, interpersonal relationships, family life), professional functioning (e.g., loss of job/studies, professional responsibilities), and complex functioning (e.g., coping with daily life, financial issues, personal growth).
Clearly, patients, their loved ones, and those who provide treatment have a much broader view than researchers of what constitutes important outcomes to their mental health treatment for depression. The two most common symptom outcomes identified by patients were psychic pain and the burden imposed by suicidal ideation, yet these rarely assessed as primary outcomes in psychotherapy studies. And outcomes like social functioning, family relationships, and personal growth are not primary outcomes, and often they are not assessed at all in research studies. Clinicians would do well to take a broader view of what is important to patients, and to keep in mind their patients wishes as they develop collaborative goals for treatment with patients. It may be useful not only to use standardized scales to aid in developing treatment plans, but also to ask patients what they hope to gain from therapy should the treatment be successful.
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.