Cuijpers, P., Noma, H., Karyotaki, E., Vinkers, C.H., Cipriani, A., & Furukawa, T.A. (2020). A network meta‐analysis of the effects of psychotherapies, pharmacotherapies and their combination in the treatment of adult depression. World Psychiatry, 19, 92-107.
Mental disorders represent a significant health burden worldwide, with over 350 million people affected. Depression is the second leading cause of disease burden. There is ample evidence that psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies are effective in the treatment of depression. There is also evidence for the efficacy of different types of psychotherapy (CBT, IPT, PDT), and for different types of antidepressant medications. Some research suggests that combining psychotherapy and medications is better than either intervention alone, but the evidence is inconclusive. Existing meta analyses only compare two existing treatments directly to each other at a time: psychotherapy vs medications, psychotherapy vs combined treatments, medications vs combined treatments. In this meta-analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues use a method called “network meta-analysis” to study the relative impact of medications, psychotherapy, or their combination. Network meta-analysis is controversial because it relies on indirect comparisons to estimate effects. For example, let’s say one study compared medications (A) to psychotherapy (B), and another study compared medication (A) to combination treatment (C), then a network meta-analysis would estimate the effects of psychotherapy vs combination treatment by using the transitive principle (if A = B, and B = C, then A = C). This logic relies on everything being equivalent across studies. However, in treatment trials one cannot assume that the different studies comparing A, B, and C are equivalent in terms of quality and bias (in fact, we know they are not). In any case, Cuijpers and colleagues found that combined treatment was superior to either psychotherapy alone or pharmacotherapy alone in terms of standardized effect sizes (0.30, 95% CI: 0.14-0.45 and 0.33, 95% CI: 0.20-0.47). No significant difference was found between psychotherapy alone and pharmacotherapy alone (0.04, 95% CI: –0.09 to 0.16). Interestingly, acceptability (defined as lower patient drop-out rate and better patient adherence to the treatment) was significantly better for combined treatment compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.23, 95% CI:
1.05-1.45), as well as for psychotherapy compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.17, 95% CI: 1.02-1.32). In other words, pharmacotherapy alone was less acceptable to patients than another treatment approach that included psychotherapy.
This network meta-analysis by a renowned researcher and in a prestigious journal adds to the controversy around the relative efficacy of psychotherapy vs medications vs their combination. What is clear is that patients find medication alone to be less acceptable as a treatment option, and previous research shows that patients are 4 times more likely to prefer psychotherapy over medications. Unfortunately, most people with depression receive medications without psychotherapy.