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
Negative Effects of Psychotherapy
Strauss, B., Gawlytta, R., Schleu, A., & Frenzl, D. (2021). Negative effects of psychotherapy: Estimating the prevalence in a random national sample. BJPsych Open, 7(6), E186.
The focus of psychotherapy research tends to be on establishing the effectiveness of psychotherapies for various disorders. Rarely do psychotherapy studies report negative effects or negative outcomes. Some researchers estimate that about 5% of patients experience worsening of symptoms by the end of psychotherapy. However, there are very few investigations of clients’ experiences of the negative impact of therapy and fewer still that ask clients in the general population who had a course of therapy. In this national survey of the general population, Strauss and colleagues asked 5562 individuals if they received psychotherapy in the past 6 years. Of the total sample, 244 indicated that they had or are currently in treatment. These individuals had characteristics similar to patients seen in treatment. The mean age was 55.1 years (SD = 15/2), 63.4% had shorter term therapy of less than a year, 41% reported an anxiety disorder and 77% had a mood disorder, 63.1% saw a female therapist, and 69.2% saw a psychologist. These individuals were asked a series of questions regarding their experiences as clients in therapy. Rates of positive change due to therapy varied by the problems that they noted. For example, 26.6% indicated that they had a better relationship with their parents due to therapy, whereas 67.7% experienced improved mood. On average 88.6% agreed that they had a positive working relationship with the therapist. However, about 19% dropped out of therapy and an additional 13.1% changed therapist during treatment, indicating negative experiences or outcomes. Patient problems that had the highest deterioration rates (i.e., worsened) were physical well-being (13.1%), ability to work (13.1%), vitality (11.1%), sexual problems (10.6%) and problems with self-esteem (10.3%). The most common negative effect attributed to specifically to the treatment was the resurfacing of unpleasant memories (57.8% in the total sample). Other such problems like sleep problems, stress, and unpleasant feelings were reported 27.9% to 36.9% of the time. Of the total sample, 56.6% reported having had at least one negative effect caused by their experience in psychotherapy. Boundary violations and malpractice were very rarely reported by this sample of patients.
Much of the research and clinical writing of psychotherapy tends to focus on whether it is effective and to document its positive effects. However, an important minority of patients experience worsening of symptoms and/or unpleasant or negative effects of psychotherapy. Some might argue that painful feelings that emerge in some clients is a necessary process when the client works through conflicting feelings or perceptions of themselves and others. A collaborative agreement between therapist and client on how therapy might proceed, how it works, or the goals of therapy will go a long way to limit the negative impact of working through unpleasant feelings in therapy. Nevertheless, therapists should monitor dropout rates in their practice and worsening symptoms in their clients and adjust their therapy and interpersonal stances accordingly.
Quality of Life Outcomes in the Psychological Treatment of Persistent Depression
McPherson, S., & Senra, H. (2022). Psychological treatments for persistent depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quality of life and functioning outcomes. Psychotherapy, 59(3), 447–459.
The World Health Organization ranks depression as the largest cause of global disability accounting for 7.5% of all years lived with disability. Persistent forms of depression contribute to years lived with disability due to its chronic nature and its association with low levels of social and physical functioning, high rates of suicide, and high health care use. One way to look at disability as an outcome is to assess quality of life, which refers to performance in daily and social functioning and satisfaction with these activities. In this meta-analysis, McPherson and Senra examine 14 randomized controlled trials of psychological therapies for chronic or persistent depression in adults. The control condition included no treatment, waiting list, treatment as usual, or only antidepressant medication. The psychotherapies were mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), long term psychoanalytic psychotherapy (LTPP), and DBT. Chronic depression was defined as a course of depression of at least 2 years and/or non-response to at least two treatments. The quality of life measure had to assess satisfaction with physical health, psychological state, level of independence, and social relationships. In general, the psychological treatments were associated with improvements in patients’ quality of life at the end of treatment (N=11; g=0.24; 95%CI: 0.13, 0.34). At follow up, the effect size was g=.21 (95%CI: 0.10, 0.32). That is, the effects were significant and positive, but small. The psychological interventions resulted in improvements in patient functioning at the end of treatment, g=.35 (95%CI: 0.21, 0.48), which is consistent with previous meta-analyses showing small to moderate effects of psychological treatments for persistent depression. Although there were too few studies to properly assess differences between therapy types, MBCT, IPT, and LTPP in combination with antidepressant medications had the largest effects among the therapies studied.
In international surveys, patients seeking treatment for depression, informal caregivers, and health professionals list quality of life and social functioning as just as important or as more important than symptom reduction. Yet, these outcomes related to quality of life are not often assessed in clinical trials. This meta-analysis of a modest number of studies, suggests that some psychological therapies (MBCT, IPT, LTPP), in combination with antidepressant medications have the largest positive effects on quality of life for those persistent depression.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health Workers’ Well-Being
Mittal, M., Morgan, A. A., Du, J., Jiang, J., Boekeloo, B., & Fish, J. N. (2022, December 19). “Each week feels like a mountain”: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health providers’ well-being and clinical work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the health care system worldwide. Stressors on health care workers have included misinformation, rapidly changing knowledge of the virus, the politicization of mask wearing, high transmission rates, and high rates of patients requiring critical care. There has been much written about the impact of the pandemic on physicians and nurses caused by these factors. Much less attention has been paid to the experiences of mental health workers who had to rapidly transition to telehealth, which required immediate adaptations and learning with little training and preparation. In this qualitative study, Mittal and colleagues thematically analyzed text responses of 136 mental health professionals to questions about the impact of telehealth work during the pandemic on mental health and on clinical practice. The mental health professionals were from several disciplines (psychology, social work, counseling), most were women (84%), White (81%), with a mean age of 45.5 years. First, several themes emerged regarding providers’ mental health. Most indicated that their own experiences of exhaustion and stress were mirrored in their patients’ experiences, which made it harder to cope. Another common experience was “Zoom fatigue”, in which seeing clients online was more tiring, less enjoyable, and more isolating. Many also reported a decline in their physical health – that is, they experienced more headaches, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, and eye strain. Some reported a heightened sense of meaning in their work, such as a greater sense of pride and meaning derived from helping people during a particularly troubling time. Second, several themes were identified related to clinical practice. Practicing and living in the same space was particularly challenging for some - practicing from home while being responsible for other members of the household (children) was difficult and distracting. Many reported a decrease in work satisfaction and lower motivation, both of which impacted their level of empathy for and engagement with clients. Some reported positive effects especially related to having more time due to reduced commuting, and a greater sense of empathy for clients who felt isolated themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic and using telehealth for work required a significant shift in practice for mental health professionals. The shift meant important changes in how we practice and how we live our lives. And so, it is not surprising that mental health professionals’ well-being has been impacted by this transition and the challenges it poses. It is important to recognize the stressors related to telehealth work and to try to mitigate their impact. Some authors have suggested ways of reducing the negative impact of increased screen time on mental health providers, such as: taking breaks whenever possible, including 5 to 10 minutes between sessions; using previous “commute time” for self-care (social connection, physical activity); increasing social and professional connections with planned gatherings; and prioritizing self-care even more, including physical exercise and personal therapy.
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.
Ways to Address Cultural Topics in Psychotherapy
Depauw, H., Van Hiel, A., De Clercq, B., Bracke, P., & Van De Putte, B. (2022). Addressing cultural topics during psychotherapy: Evidence based dos and dont's from an ethnic minority perspective. Psychotherapy Research.
When ethnic minority members receive psychotherapy, they tend to show higher premature drop-out rates. One of the factors associated with these negative outcomes may be that therapists may not know how to effectively address the cultural conversations that inevitably arise with some clients. To help therapists, some authors developed a Multicultural Orientation Framework (MCO) that consists of cultural humility (taking an other-oriented stance regarding culture while remaining non-defensive about one’s own limitations), cultural opportunities (discussing clients’ cultural identities when they emerge in therapy), and cultural comfort (a therapist’s genuine comfort in discussing cultural topics). Such a stance may also help therapists to address microaggressions (intentional or unintentional verbal or behavioral indignities based on cultural identity). One useful therapist stance is “broaching” of culturally sensitive topics – that is, therapists’ engaging in explicit dialogue with clients about culture. Previous research indicates that broaching culturally topics can benefit the therapeutic alliance and clients’ perception of therapist multicultural competence. In this survey study, Depauw and colleagues looked at three aspects of broaching – direct broaching in which a therapist explicitly raises cultural topics (“I noticed that we both have a different ethnic background…), indirect broaching in which a therapist is receptive to cultural topics but with less focused exploration (“…you mentioned your friend doesn’t understand your experiences, are there other situations in which that happened…?”), and avoiding broaching in which a therapist sidesteps cultural conversations even when a client brings them up. Depauw and colleagues surveyed 211 psychotherapy clients in the United Kingdom who identified as not being a member of the predominant social group (i.e., with regard to ethnicity, gender/sexual expression, religion, socioeconomic status, ability, and others). The researchers asked whether therapists broached cultural identity topics, what type of broaching approach a therapist took, and clients also rated their therapist’s level of MCO (cultural comfort, cultural humility, and missed opportunities) and therapist microaggressions. The results revealed that both therapist direct and indirect broaching of cultural topics were favorably associated with a client’s rating of the therapist’s MCO and with fewer microaggressions. Therapists’ avoidance of broaching of cultural topics was associated with negative ratings of therapist MCO and with more microaggressions. When only considering the clients’ most important self-identified cultural identity, the researchers found that indirect broaching was favorably related to all aspects of MCO and fewer microaggression, direct broaching was only associated with fewer missed opportunities, and avoidant broaching was unfavorably related to all aspects of MCO and microaggressions.
The results of this survey of clients suggest that therapists should not avoid cultural content in therapy. Broaching culturally sensitive topics is important for a good therapeutic experience for clients with diverse identities. In some cases, for clients’ primary cultural identity, indirect broaching of culturally sensitive topics may be more effective. Therapists should consider a client’s identity in terms of how the client experiences it and the importance of the identity to the client.
What are Best Practices for Psychotherapy with Indigenous Peoples
Wendt, D. C., Huson, K., Albatnuni, M., & Gone, J. P. (2022, October 3). What are the best practices for psychotherapy with Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada? A thorny question. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
In 2016 2.8% of the Canadian population identified as First Nations, 1.7% as Metis, and 0.2% as Inuit. In Canada there are 634 First Nations each with their own traditions, governance structures, and land claims. Colonial violence and land dispossession has led to Indigenous Peoples suffering from many mental health inequities. Indigenous samples are rarely evaluated in clinical trials of psychotherapy. And psychotherapy, as typically delivered, is a practice that is embedded in European cultural values which may not be appropriate for Indigenous Peoples. Defining best practices in psychotherapy with Indigenous Peoples may indeed be thorny given the historical context and values inherent in psychotherapy practice. In this article, Wendt and colleagues review four paths to providing psychotherapy to Indigenous clients, but each path has their challenges. The first path is to offer on empirically supported therapies for specific identifiable disorders. However, out of the hundreds of clinical trials available, only six were conducted that specifically focused on American Indian clients and all for alcohol use problems. Most empirically supported therapies were not validated for use with Indigenous clients, and some argue that this may make these treatments potentially harmful. The second path is to culturally adapt interventions so that the original therapies are maintained but adapted to the needs and culture of the Indigenous population. Some research suggests that cultural adaptations result in moderately better outcomes. Deeper adaptations incorporate cultural beliefs and promote cultural identity and connections to the Indigenous community. However, cultural adaptations tend to preserve a disorder-centric approach to problems rather than seeing problems in terms of a balance between mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The third path involves emphasizing the psychotherapy relationship, the working alliance, and promotion of hope – also known as the common factors approach to psychotherapy. This is highly collaborative approach to how therapy progresses and to maintaining a reciprocal balance in the therapeutic relationship. However, this approach does not necessarily address the European cultural values inherent in most psychotherapies. The fourth path involves efforts to strengthen and revitalize traditional Indigenous practices and cultural education as a means of healing. These might include integrating sweat lodges, the Medicine Wheel, and talking circles. This path embodies a “culture as treatment” approach in which problems are seen within historical losses of identity, purpose, and place. A report from the Canadian Psychological Association and the Psychology Foundation of Canada calls for psychologists to “view themselves as facilitators and supporters of the healing wisdom and knowledge that is already present in Indigenous communities”. However, as Wendt and colleagues note, there are practical barriers to this approach, and even if “culture as treatment” is seen by some as self-evidently effective, it has rarely been researched.
Mental health professionals should avoid being unwitting agents of assimilation when providing clinical care to Indigenous clients. Primarily, clinicians should maintain a stance of cultural humility. Traditional indigenous approaches to mental health are important as a long-term strategy, including traditional understandings of problems, traditional healing, and Indigenous-led cultural interventions. All of this, however, is limited by inadequately addressed colonial harms, poverty, and legal obstacles to Indigenous Nations’ sovereignty.