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 psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, capacity to metnalize and therapy resistant depression, and negative effects of psychotherapy
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
Does Treatment Fidelity Lead to Better Patient Outcomes?
Alexandersson, K., Wågberg, M., Ekeblad, A., Holmqvist, R., & Falkenström, F. (2022) Session-to-session effects of therapist adherence and facilitative conditions on symptom change in CBT and IPT for depression. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2022.2025626.
There has been a long-standing debate in psychotherapy about whether a therapist’s capacity to be adherent to treatment manual and to be competent in delivering specific treatment interventions leads to better patient outcomes. Some argue that rigid adherence may lead to worse outcomes, and meta-analytic research suggests that specific treatment adherence or competence has no impact on outcomes. Others argue that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) and the therapeutic alliance plays a more important role in whether patients get better. It is possible that psychotherapy research designs and rudimentary data analytic methods obscure the effects of therapist treatment adherence. In this study, Alexandersson and colleagues collected data from a randomized controlled trial of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for depression. The researchers rated therapist behaviors (adherence to the treatment manual, facilitative behaviors) from recorded therapy sessions. They also assessed patient ratings of the therapeutic alliance after every session. Alexandersson and colleagues used a statistical modeling procedure that allowed them to look specifically at the effects of therapist adherence in a previous session on a patient’s depressive symptoms in a subsequent session. Their results did not show any effects of therapists’ use of specific CBT or IPT techniques on patient outcomes. Facilitative therapist behaviors in a previous session predicted better patient outcomes in the next session for CBT but not for IPT. The effects of facilitative therapist behaviors on outcomes were partially explained by levels of the therapeutic alliance. That is, facilitative behaviors among CBT therapists led to higher therapeutic alliance ratings by patients, which in turn led to lower patient depression scores in the subsequent session.
The authors were a little surprised that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) led to better outcomes in CBT but not in IPT. They speculated that therapist relational competence might be especially relevant early in CBT to facilitate a strong alliance, which in turn reduces depressive symptoms among patients. The demanding tasks of CBT (behavioral activation, homework) might mean that therapists’ warmth, support and engagement are important precursors to patients benefitting from the therapy.
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.
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Bruijniks, S., Lemmens, L., Hollon, S.D., Peeters, F.P., ….Huibers, M.J. (2020). The effects of once- versus twice-weekly sessions on psychotherapy outcomes in depressed patients. The British Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1192/bjp.2019.265. [Epub ahead of print].
Some research has suggested that the number of sessions per week, not the total number of sessions received, is correlated with patient outcomes. It is possible that higher session frequency per week might lead clients to better recall the content of sessions, which in turn may lead to better treatment outcomes. Or perhaps, higher frequency of sessions might lead to a better therapeutic alliance and higher client motivation thus leading to better outcomes. Although previous research has suggested that more sessions per week is better, no study has ever directly assessed this issue until now. Bruijniks and colleagues conducted a large randomized controlled trial of 200 adults with depression seen across nine specialized clinics in the Netherlands. Researchers randomly assigned clients to receive either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for a maximum of 20 sessions. Half of the clients in either type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a twice a week basis, and half of clients in each type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a once a week basis. The therapies were manualized, therapists were trained and supervised, and clients were carefully selected to meet criteria for depression. More patients dropped out of weekly (31%) compared to twice weekly (17%) therapy. There were no differences between CBT and IPT in depression outcomes. However, there was a significant effect of session frequency on patient outcomes in favor of twice weekly sessions (d = 0.55). Using a strict criteria of “recovery” from depression at 6 months post treatment, 19.6% of patients receiving once weekly therapy “recovered” compared to 29.5% of patients receiving twice weekly therapy.
This large multi-site study has intriguing implications for practice. More frequent sessions per week may result in significantly better patient outcomes regardless of the type of therapy offered. Not surprisingly, IPT and CBT were equally effective. However, their effectiveness was limited in that only between 20% to 30% of patients recovered from depression. This finding is similar to the results previous trials, and speaks to the limitations of time-limited manual-based therapies for depression. Nevertheless, it appears that more frequent therapy per week may be a better option for some clients.
What Does a Good Outcome Mean to Patients?
De Smet, M. M., Meganck, R., De Geest, R., Norman, U. A., Truijens, F., & Desmet, M. (2020). What “good outcome” means to patients: Understanding recovery and improvement in psychotherapy for major depression from a mixed-methods perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(1), 25–39.
Many researchers consider the randomized controlled trial (RCT) as the best research design for testing medical and psychological treatments. However, critics of the design point to its limitations. For example, in order to collect homogenous samples of patients, researchers may exclude those with complex comorbidities. As a result, patient samples in RCTs may not represent patients one might see in real clinical practice. Also, researchers, and not patients, tend to define the meaning of what is a “good outcome” in these studies. It is possible that researchers and patients may not share the same definition of what it means to have a good outcome from psychotherapy. One key statistical and measurement method that researchers use to define outcomes is the reliable change index, which calculates the degree of change on a symptom scale from pre-treatment to post-treatment relative to the unreliability of the measurement. Using this method, researchers classify patients as “recovered” (reliably changed and passing a clinical cut-off score), “improved” (reliably changed but remaining in the clinical range), “not improved”, or “deteriorated”. However, this commonly used approach does not indicate whether the changes are actually meaningful to the patients. In this study, De Smet and colleagues interviewed patients from a randomized controlled trial of time-limited psychotherapy (16 sessions of CBT vs psychodynamic therapy) for depression who were classified as “recovered” or “improved” at post-treatment based on the reliable change index of a commonly used depression self-report scale. The authors asked how the patients experienced their depression symptom outcome, and what changes the patients valued since the start of therapy. In the original treatment trial of 100 patients, 28 were categorized as “recovered” and 19 patients were categorized as “improved”. During the post-therapy interview, the “recovered” and “improved” patients typically reported a certain degree of improvement in their symptoms. However, the patients categorized as “improved” reported that their gains were unstable from day to day, some reported having relapsed, and half did not feel that they improved at all. None of the “recovered” patients indicated that they felt “cured” of depression. Patients identified three domains of change that they experienced and valued. First, they felt empowered – that is, they had increased self-confidence, greater independence, and new coping skills. Second, they found a personal balance – that is, they had better relationships with loved ones, felt calmer, and had greater insight into their problems. Third, patients tended to identify ongoing struggles despite positive changes in the other domains – that is, certain key problems remained unresolved. “Improved” patients, and even some in the “recovered” group, indicated that their core difficulties had not been altered by the therapy.
Although measurement of symptom change can give a clinician a general sense of how the patient is doing with regard to their symptoms and whether the patient is on track, such measurement may not capture the complexity of patients’ experiences of the therapy and any broader changes they may value. Patients in this trial, especially those classified as “improved”, had varied experiences. Aside from symptom reduction, clinicians should assess what their patients may value, such as: better relationships, greater self-understanding, more self-confidence, and feeling calmer. Most patients, including some who “recovered”, felt that they were engaged in an ongoing struggle, even after therapy. These findings suggest that addressing some of the core difficulties patients face may require longer term psychotherapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) for Chronic Depression
Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) for Chronic Depression
Schramm, E., Kriston, L., Zobel, I., Bailer, J., Wambach, K., …Harter, M. (2017). Effect of disorder-specific vs nonspecific psychotherapy for chronic depression: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, 74, 233-242.
The lifetime prevalence of chronic depression is somewhere between 3% and 6% of the population. Chronic depression refers to depression that develops into a chronic course of more that 2 years. Compared to those with acute depression (< 2 years depressed), patients with chronic depression experience greater social, physical, and mental impairments. This large randomized controlled trial by Schramm and colleagues assessed the efficacy of the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System (CBASP) compared to so-called non-specific psychotherapy (NSP), both delivered in 24 sessions. CBASP is a structured therapy that combines cognitive and interpersonal treatments focused on problems solving and learning the effects of one’s own behaviors on others. On the other hand, therapists delivering NSP were limited to reflective listening, empathy, and helping the client feel hopeful. Specific interventions associated with cognitive or interpersonal therapies were prohibited. A total of 262 patients with chronic depression were randomly assigned to receive 24 sessions of either CBASP or NSP. Main outcomes included indicators of “response” to treatment (a 50% reduction in a depression scale score) or “recovery” (a very low score on the scale at the end of treatment). Both CBASP and NSP resulted in a significant decline in depressive symptoms after 48 weeks. The CBASP condition was slightly more effective than simply providing NSP (d = 0.39, NNT = 5). About 38.7% responded to CBASP compared to 24.3% who responded to NSP (OR = 2.02; 95% CI, 1.09-3.73; p = .03; NNT = 5). In terms of remission, 21.8% recovered after CBASP compared to 12.6% in NSP (OR = 3.55; 95% CI, 1.61-7.85; p = .002; NNT = 4). Average drop-out rates were similar between the two treatments at about 22%.
CBASP represents a highly structured integrative treatment for chronic depression. It did modestly better than NSP in which therapists were prohibited from engaging in any technical intervention. In the end, the longer-term rates of recovery for CBASP were also modest at about 21.8%. On the one hand, chronic depression is notoriously difficult to treat with psychotherapy or medications, so perhaps CBASP will provide relief for some. On the other hand, an average 21.8% recovery rate for CBASP was modest. CBASP was slightly better than providing active listening and empathy alone.
Adverse Events During Psychotherapy
Adverse Events During Psychotherapy
Meister, R., Lanio, J., Fangmeier, T., Harter, M., Schramm, E., … Kriston, L. (2020). Adverse events during a disorder‐specific psychotherapy compared to a nonspecific psychotherapy in patients with chronic depression. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76, 7-19.
Adverse events refer to negative or unwanted outcomes of psychotherapy that may be due to the therapy itself when delivered correctly, or to the application of the therapy when delivered incorrectly. For example, patients may report worsening of symptoms, relationship problems with partners or family, problems at work, stigma, and other disadvantages. Adverse events during pharmacologic treatment are well studied and are often considered when making treatment decisions. However, adverse events in psychotherapy are largely ignored in the research and clinical literature. A recent meta analysis reported that the median deterioration rates in psychotherapy studies is about 4%, which is likely less than half the rate of deterioration seen in regular clinical practice. In this study, Meister and colleagues look at deterioration rates in a randomized controlled trial comparing the Cognitive Behavioral Assessment System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) versus non-supportive psychotherapy (NSP). In that study that was previously summarized in this blog, 262 depressed patients were randomly assigned to receive 24 weeks of either CBASP or NSP. Participants who received CBASP were slightly better off than those who got NSP, and the drop-out rates were equivalent between conditions. Therapists asked patients at each session if the patient experienced an adverse event in the previous week. Patients reported an average of about 12 adverse events during the 24 weeks of psychotherapy, and there was no difference in the number of adverse events between CBASP and NSP. However, patients receiving CBASP reported more severe adverse events related to their personal life and work life compared to patients receiving NSP. Suicidal thoughts were infrequently reported by patients, and their frequency did not differ between CBASP and NSP.
The study highlights that symptoms and interpersonal conflicts may temporarily increase as a result of being in psychotherapy. The authors argued that the increases in problems with work and personal relationships may be due to the specific interpersonal treatment elements of CBASP that require changes in the patient’s interpersonal behaviors that temporarily may be disruptive to their lives. Therapists may consider informing patients about the possible temporary negative effects of psychotherapy on their relationships or functioning. This preparation might help patients to make informed decisions about psychotherapy and to prepare them to cope with changes in their relationships.