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
What Proportion of Patients Benefit from Short-Term Psychotherapy?
Cuijpers, P., Karyotaki, E., Ciharova, M., Miguel, C., Hisashi, N., &Furukawa, T.A. (2021). The effects of psychotherapies for depression on response, remission, reliable change, and deterioration: A meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 10.1111/acps.13335. Advance online publication.
Many meta-analyses report that psychological therapies are effective to treat depression, that there are no differences between types or orientations of therapy in their outcomes, and that psychotherapy is as effective as medications in the short term and perhaps more effective in the longer term. But what do these findings mean for everyday practice? Many meta-analyses report a standardized mean effect size between treatment and control conditions. However, the effect size is an abstraction that may be difficult to interpret unless you understand the statistic. Clinicians may ask a more practical question: what is the proportion of patients that improve (have meaningful reductions in depression scores) and recover (improved and no longer are depressed)? This meta-analysis by Cuijpers and colleagues of 228 studies representing over 23,000 adult patients looked at the proportion of patients who improved and recovered after psychotherapy relative to those in control conditions (no treatment, care as usual, pill placebo). The psychotherapies were short term manualized treatments like CBT, behavioral activation, interpersonal psychotherapy delivered in individual, group, and self-help formats. About 41% of patients improved with psychotherapy for depression compared to 17% that improved with usual care and 31% for pill placebo. However, after statistically controlling for publication bias (i.e., the likelihood that some unflattering studies were never published), the improvement rate for psychotherapy was 38%. Recovery rates for psychotherapy ranged from 26% to 34%, and recovery in the control conditions ranged from 9% to 17%. There were no differences between therapy orientations. Highest rates of recovery or improvement were achieved by individual therapy and the lowest rates were seen in guided self-help. Deterioration rates were just below 5% in psychotherapy and about 7% to 13% in control conditions.
The effects of time-limited manualized psychotherapies tested in randomized controlled trials were modest. About 40% of patients improved and about 30% recovered. On the positive side, psychotherapies resulted in only about 5% of patients getting worse. The authors argued that clinicians must consider more effective strategies beyond these approaches to improve outcomes for depression. Some have focused on improving psychotherapist effectiveness, rather than on specific interventions. Methods like progress monitoring, managing countertransference, and repairing therapeutic alliance ruptures are means of improving psychotherapists’ effectiveness.
Patients Crying in Psychotherapy
Genova, F., Zingaretti, P., Gazzillo, F., Tanzilli, A., Lingiardi, V., Katz, M., & Hilsenroth, M. (2021). Patients’ crying experiences in psychotherapy and relationship with working alliance, therapeutic change and attachment styles. Psychotherapy, 58(1), 160–171.
Crying often reflects deep feeling and may play a role in the expression of these feelings. In psychotherapy, crying may be an important experience in helping patients to experience and express their emotions. In previous research, patients who had a strong therapeutic alliance with their therapist also felt that crying allowed them to communicate feelings that they could not express verbally. Researchers also report that patients cry in 14% to 21% of sessions, and that crying may be an indicator of healing when it is assisted by therapist interventions. In this study, Genova and colleagues explored the association between patients’ crying during therapy and the therapeutic alliance and therapeutic change. In a survey, 106 adult patients (mean age = 30.94 years, SD = 8.74) were asked to complete several questionnaires about crying in therapy, crying in their lives in general, the therapeutic alliance, and their outcomes in therapy. Of all patients, 83% reported crying at least once in therapy, suggesting that patient crying during therapy is a common event. Most patients (67.4%) talked to their therapist about crying. Many patients reported negative feelings like sadness (53.5%), frustration (38.4%), or powerlessness (28.2%) after crying in therapy. However, other patients also reported positive feels after crying like relief (45.3%), feeling emotionally touched (34.1%), or a sense of warmth (24.7%). Some patients (41.9%) reported that crying in therapy improved their relationship with their therapist, and no patient reported that crying worsened their therapeutic relationship. There was a significant positive correlation between feeling relieved after crying and the therapeutic alliance (r = .29), but a significant negative correlation between feeling depressed after crying and the therapeutic alliance (r = -.30). Positive feelings after crying were also associated with patient rated improvement in therapy (r = .29 to r = .34). However, negative feelings, such as more tension after crying, were related to poorer outcomes (r = -.27).
When patients and therapists have a strong therapeutic alliance (collaborative agreement on the goals and tasks of therapy, and a relational bond), patients experience their crying as a useful event to resolve negative feelings. This is especially true when crying leads to greater awareness and new realizations and when the therapist is supportive. It is critical for therapists to explore their patients’ crying in therapy as it represents an opportunity to deepen the therapeutic relationship and the patient’s self-awareness and self-efficacy.
Disclosure of Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors in Psychotherapy
Love, H. A., & Morgan, P. C. (2021, March 18). You Can Tell Me Anything: Disclosure of Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors in Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication.
Only about half of people who die by suicide each year disclose their thoughts or behaviors to another person before their death. And many times, those with suicidal ideation do not disclose to their therapist. There is very little known about why patients do or do not disclose their suicidal thoughts or behaviors to their therapists. This qualitative study by Love and Morgan takes a unique approach to identifying themes that lead to patient disclosure or non-disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviors to psychotherapists. The authors distributed a survey online to those currently in psychotherapy and who have had suicidal thoughts. Sixty-eight current patients with suicidal thoughts responded to questions about their experience with disclosing or not disclosing to their therapists. On average, participants were 26.78 years old (SD = 7.25), mostly white and female. Half of the patients disclosed, and half did not disclose to their therapist, and most of those who did not disclose to their therapist (77.4%) also did not disclose to others in their lives. The authors did a qualitative analysis of the text responses to identify major themes. The main theme for not disclosing was the fear of negative outcomes. This included involuntary hospitalization, fear of their therapist’s judgment, and overall lack of trust in the therapist. The main themes for disclosing included a desire to receive the best possible care, trust in the therapist, and perception that the therapist was honest about policies regarding suicidal thoughts and behaviors including reporting procedures. Patients’ experience of the disclosure event itself was affected by several factors. Patients experienced the therapist as supportive of the disclosure when the therapist was empathic, nonjudgmental, and normalized suicidal thoughts. Supportive therapists did not minimize suicidal thoughts, but they did address it directly. A positive and supportive therapist response played a large role in the experience of the disclosure process. Not surprisingly, patients who perceived greater therapist support indicated greater satisfaction in the therapist’s response.
A strong therapeutic alliance that includes a collaborative approach to determining safety planning and crisis management is key to promoting disclosure of suicidal thoughts and behaviors and to a positive experience for clients. Patients who can describe what influences their suicidal thoughts in a safe and empathic therapeutic environment are in a good position to deal with the suicidal urges. Involuntary hospitalization emerged as an important fear because of the loss of autonomy, loss of connection, and hopelessness that it might create. And so, such action, when necessary, should be done as carefully as possible to avoid creating a lack of trust in future care and disclosures. A clear, straightforward, and empathic discussion of the circumstances around suicidal thoughts, and an open discussion of safety and contingency plans is critical to conserve the patient’s trust in the therapist and therapeutic relationship.
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.
Adverse Effects of Psychotherapy in Patients with Depression
Moritz, S., Nestoriuc, Y., Rief, W., Klein, J.P., Jelinek, L., Peth, J. (2019). It can’t hurt, right? Adverse effects of psychotherapy in patients with depression. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 269, 577–586.
Only recently have psychotherapy researchers begun to document adverse events or negative outcomes in treatment trials. Research demonstrates that in everyday clinical practice, clinicians generally are unable to identify patients who get worse because of therapy. Unfortunately, the field remains unclear as to what constitutes an adverse event in psychotherapy. Moritz and colleagues refined and shortened a questionnaire filled out by patients about adverse events that they may have experienced in a recent psychotherapy. The authors defined an adverse event as consisting of three aspects. First, side effects were defined as the patient experiencing an unintended negative effect including stigma, relationships deteriorating, and greater symptoms. Second, malpractice was defined as the patient judging that the therapist provided a treatment that was not appropriate to the problem at hand. Third, unethical conduct was defined as a therapist abusing a patient in some manner. In addition, the authors also had a scale of positive effects experienced by patients due to the therapy. For this study, Moritz and colleagues recruited 135 patients who were diagnosed with depression and asked them to fill out the questionnaire about adverse events in their most recent psychotherapy. Most patients (95.6%) reported at least one positive effect of the psychotherapy that they received. However, at least one adverse event was reported by 52.5% of patients. Side effects were endorsed most frequently by 38.5% of patients. Malpractice was endorsed second most frequently by 26.7% of patients. Finally, unethical conduct was endorsed by 8.1% of patients. Not surprisingly, adverse events in therapy were negatively correlated with positive effects of therapy (r = -.24). Adverse events were not associated with patient factors like gender, or therapy factors like type of therapy or profession of the therapist.
This study by Moritz and colleagues is far from perfect, but it does begin a conversation about acknowledging that psychotherapy is not necessarily a benign event for some patients. In a previous study for example, 42% of patients with obsessive compulsive disorder experienced more or worsening symptoms due to exposure techniques used in CBT. Psychotherapists are notoriously poor at identifying patients who get worse from therapy, and so some therapists use aids like continuous progress monitoring to track patient progress and identify when therapy may be harmful.
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.