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
Therapist Multicultural Orientation and Client Outcomes
Hayes, J. A., Owen, J., Nissen-Lie, H. A. (2017). The contribution of client culture to differential therapist effectiveness. In L. G. Castonguay and C. E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects (Ch. 9). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Some therapists may have better client outcomes because they are more adept at working with clients of different cultures. In this chapter, Hayes and colleagues define culture as referring to a group of people who share common history, values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals. The cultural groups to which one may belong include those based on: gender, religion, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, race, and age, among others. Research suggests that culturally adapted therapy is more effective than unadapted therapy for racial minority clients. This may be due to more effective therapists being able to explain clients’ mental health problems and provide a rationale for specific therapy interventions that is congruent with the client’s beliefs. The most common model of multicultural therapy is multicultural competence, which is defined by having knowledge of various cultural groups, skills to navigate cultural processes, and self-awareness of personal bias. However, Hayes and colleagues argue for a multicultural orientation model in which a therapist is humble, respectful, and open to addressing culture in therapy. Whereas multicultural therapy is about acquiring knowledge, multicultural orientation refers to a way of being with clients. Hayes and colleagues review the research literature that indicates that therapists with cultural expertise are those who acknowledge when they do not have specific knowledge about a culture, have a high tolerance for not knowing, and at the same time recognize that cultural socialization affect clients’ mental health. A multicultural orientation is intended to bolster and support current therapeutic practices. For example, therapists may recognize that they need to better understand clients’ heritage when deciding whether or not to challenging a deeply held core belief related to the clients’ culture. In support of this, Hayes and colleagues review the research that indicates that: (1) client perception of therapist humility is related to client outcomes, especially for clients with a strong cultural identity; (2) clients who perceived that their therapist missed opportunities to discuss cultural issues in session had worse therapy outcomes; (3) clients who perceived therapists as culturally oriented experienced the therapy as more credible; and (4) therapist cultural comfort was related to better client outcomes.
The authors suggest that therapists ask open-ended questions to clients regarding their cultural identity, such as asking the role that religion and spirituality play in their lives. This would allow therapists to learn about client cultural identity in the client’s own words. It is particularly important for therapists to maintain a stance of humility and cultural comfort, and to attend to opportunities to work productively with cultural issues in therapy in order to improve their clients’ outcomes.
Psychotherapy for Depression Also Reduces Interpersonal Problems
McFarquhar, T., Luyten, P., & Fonagy, P. (2018). Changes in interpersonal problems in the psychotherapeutic treatment of depression as measured by the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 226, 108-123.
Interpersonal problems are commonly reported by depressed people. Interpersonal problems are seen by many as both a cause of depressive symptoms and as a result of depression. Depression may be the result of lacking basic human needs like social supports, stable relationships, and intimacy. One of the most important ways of assessing interpersonal problems is with the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (IIP). The IIP is based on a circumplex model of two independent dimensions: affiliation (friendliness vs hostility) and status (dominance vs submissiveness). Greater problems in any of these domains or any combination of these domains may lead to interpersonal distress that result in or are the result of depression. Many psychotherapies target interpersonal problems in their treatment of depression: Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (STDP), and Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT). In this meta-analysis, McFarquhar and colleagues evaluated whether psychotherapy for depression is related to changes in interpersonal distress and whether specific types of interpersonal problems at baseline are related to treatment outcomes for depression at post-treatment. The authors looked at both randomized and non-randomized trials of psychotherapy for adults with depression. They found 10 studies that met inclusion criteria, six of which were randomized controlled trials. Psychotherapy for depression resulted large positive changes in interpersonal problems (overall pre- to post-treatment ES g=0.74, 95% CI=0.56–0.93). Unfortunately, there were too few studies (k = 3) that met meta-analytic criteria to do an analysis of pre-treatment interpersonal distress as a predictor of depression outcomes. However, of 8 studies that looked at this question, six showed that higher interpersonal distress was associated with poorer outcomes for depression at post-treatment.
Given that interpersonal problems both cause and are caused by depressive symptoms, targeting relationship difficulties (lack of social support, conflict in relationships, low intimacy, relationship avoidance) in psychotherapy should be a priority. This meta-analysis showed that interpersonal distress improves after psychotherapy for depression, and there was some evidence that higher interpersonal problems at the outset may reduce the effects of the therapy for depressive symptoms.
Therapists’ Appropriate Responsiveness to Clients
Stiles, W. B. & Horvath, A. O. (2017). Appropriate responsiveness as a contribution to therapist effects. In L. Castonguay and C. Hill (Eds.). How and why some therapists are better than others?: Understanding therapist effects (Ch. 4). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Appropriate responsiveness refers to therapists’ ability to adapt their techniques to the client’s requirements and circumstances. This might include planning treatment based on how the client is responding, using the client’s evolving responses to treatment as a guide to interventions, and adjusting interventions already in progress in light of subtle signs of client uptake. Appropriate responsiveness may depend on a client’s diagnosis, education, personality, stage of life, values, stage of therapy, among others. Responsiveness also depends on therapists’ skills, personality, theoretical orientation, and history of the therapeutic relationship. In this chapter, Stiles and Horvath review the literature on relationship variables that predict therapy outcomes and interpret these findings in the context of therapist responsiveness. To illustrate, previous research showed that therapists’ rigid adherence to a treatment manual was associated with worse client outcomes – or to state it differently, therapist adherence flexibility was associated with better outcomes. This flexibility is an indication of appropriate responsiveness on the part of the therapist. Stiles and Horvath also argue that most of the relationship variables that predict client outcomes reflect whether therapists appropriately respond to the circumstances of the client at a particular point in therapy. That is, evidence-based relationship factors like alliance, cohesion, empathy, goal consensus, positive regard, and others evaluate whether the therapist successfully tailored interventions and behaviors to the client’s unique personality and circumstances. For example, therapeutic alliance (the affective bond, and agreement on tasks and goals of therapy) indicates that the therapist selected interventions that were appropriate to the client, introduced them at the right time, and was attentive to and interested in the client’s progress. In support of this, the authors cite research showing that the therapeutic alliance is largely a function of the therapists’ responsiveness and not the client’s characteristics. That is, therapists are largely responsible for the quality of the therapeutic alliance.
Research is increasingly indicating that therapists’ ability to respond appropriately to clients on a moment-to-moment basis is a key therapeutic factor. In other words, therapists who can build strong alliances, repair alliance ruptures, work for goal consensus and collaboration, manage countertransference, and be empathic are those who respond to the changing nature of client characteristics and needs in therapy. Supervision that provides feedback to therapists on these therapeutic factors, mastering a framework to guide interventions, client progress monitoring and feedback, and acquiring knowledge of client personality and cultural factors can sensitise therapists to their client’s changing requirements and allow them to respond therapeutically.
Therapeutic Alliance in the Treatment of Adolescents
Murphy, R. & Hutton, P. (2017). Therapist variability, patient reported therapeutic alliance, and clinical outcomes in adolescents undergoing mental health treatment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi:10.1111/jcpp.12767.
The therapeutic alliance refers to the affective bond between therapist and client, and their agreement on the tasks and goals of therapy. The alliance is a well-known predictor of outcomes in adult psychotherapy with a mean alliance-outcome correlation of r = .28. Less is known about the role of the alliance in the treatment of adolescents. Some reviews indicate that the alliance-outcome relationship in children and adolescents is weaker than observed among adults, but these reviews may have been flawed since they included both children and adolescents in the same review, and the number of studies they reviewed was small. A large rigorous systematic review of adolescents’ perceptions of the alliance can provide insight into their experience of psychological treatment and inform routine mental health practice. In their meta analysis, Murphy and Hutton reviewed studies of clinical samples of adolescents between the age of 12 – 19 who received psychological treatment. The authors made sure that the measures of alliance and outcomes were reliable, they excluded studies of those with medical and neurocognitive problems, and included only studies with adolescents (i.e., excluding studies with primarily children). Twenty-seven studies with almost 3,000 participants were included. Main presenting problems of adolescent patients were: substance use, eating disorders, behavioral difficulties, and a range of mood and anxiety disorders. The mean weighted effect size of the alliance-outcome relationship among studies of psychological treatment of adolescents was r = .29 (95% CI: 0.21, 0.37; p < .001) indicating a moderate effect.
This is the largest meta analysis of the alliance-outcome relationship in the psychological treatment of adolescents with mental health problems. The alliance was moderately associated with outcomes, and so therapeutic alliance may be a reliable predictor of clinical progress in the treatment of adolescents. The findings suggest that those working with adolescents should routinely assess the alliance after each session in order to evaluate if they need to address relational barriers to positive outcomes. For example, if the alliance markedly declines from one session to the next, then clinicians should address potential problems in their relationship with the adolescent client, renegotiate goals, or renegotiate the tasks of therapy.
Does it Matter Which Therapist a Client Gets?
Barkham, M., Lutz, W., Lambert, M., & Saxon, D. (2017). Therapist effects, effective therapists, and the law of variability. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Psychotherapy research has often focused on the differences between treatment types (CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy), which has overshadowed research on what makes for an effective therapist. Psychotherapists represent the most costly important component of psychotherapy, and only recently has research begun to catch up to the importance of therapist effects. The term “therapist effects” refers to differences between therapists (i.e., variability) in their clients’ outcomes. In this chapter, Barkham and colleagues review some of the research on effective therapists. Best estimates of therapist effects suggest that differences between therapists account for about 8% of client outcomes – which is considered a medium effect and larger than the variance accounted for by the type of therapy that a client receives. Psychotherapy research often tries to control for therapist effects by training therapists to adhere to a manual, however adherence to a manual does not substantially reduce therapist effects, and adherence is not related to patient outcomes. The implication is that which therapist a client sees matters to the client’s mental health outcomes. The best research on the topic indicates that about 20% of therapists are substantially better than the average therapist, and 20% are substantially worse than the average. (The good news is that 60% of therapists [the average] are equally and positively effective). In that study of 119 therapists, the least effective therapists had about 40% of their clients recover, whereas the most effective therapists had about 76% of their clients recover. In other words, the better therapists were almost twice as effective as the worse therapists. In a re-examination of previous data, Barkham and colleagues looked at whether other variables, like client symptom severity, played a role in therapist effects. They found that differences among therapists was higher as client baseline severity increased. That is, the gap between better and worse therapists increased when client symptoms were more severe and complex. Good therapists were better equipped to handle more complex cases.
There are important differences between therapists in their effectiveness, and this makes a difference to clients. It is particularly important for clients with more severe symptoms to be matched with more effective therapists. Previous research indicates that the level of therapist interpersonal skills (alliance, empathy, warmth, emotional expression, verbal skills) can account for significant proportion of therapist effects, and so training therapists in these interpersonal skills will improve client outcomes. Also, therapists who receive continuous reliable feedback throughout therapy about their client’s symptom levels can also drastically reduce client drop-outs and the number of clients who get worse during treatment.
Are the Effects of Psychotherapy Inflated?
Driessen, E., Hollon, S.D., Bockting, C.L.H., Cuijpers, P., Turner, E.H. (2015). Does publication bias inflate the apparent efficacy of psychological treatment for major depressive disorder? A systematic review and meta-analysis of US National Institutes of Health-funded trials. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0137864. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137864.
In 2008 Turner published a well-known study in which he found that almost 50% of antidepressant trials registered with the Food and Drug Administration in the US were never published or were positively “spun” (i.e., essentially negative findings were interpreted to be positive). Almost all of the unpublished trials showed unfavorable results for the antidepressants’ effects. By contrast, the published studies were almost always were positive. This is evidence of publication bias caused by selective publication of some data and suppression of other data. As you can imagine, this has important implications for treatment of depression as the published record appeared to over-inflate effects of antidepressants by 25% (the mean effect size decreased from g = .41 [CI95% 0.36~0.45] to 0.31 [0.27~0.35] when unpublished studies were included). Has the same type of publication bias occurred in the published record of psychotherapy’s efficacy? In this study by Driessen and colleagues, the authors reviewed all psychotherapy studies for depression funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health in the US between 1972 and 2008. They wanted to determine which ones were published, which were never published, and what the impact of nonpublication was on the mean effect size. Of the 55 grants that were funded, 13 (26.3%) were never published, and the authors were able to obtain data from 11 of those unpublished studies. The overall mean effect size (psychological treatment versus a control condition) of unpublished studies was g = 0.20 (CI95% -0.11~0.51) indicating a small non-significant effect. The overall mean effect size for published studies was g = 0.52 (CI95% 0.37~0.68) indicating a medium significant effect. Adding the unpublished studies to published studies resulted in a 25% decrease in effect size estimate to g = 0.39 (0.08~0.70), indicating a small but significant effect of psychotherapy.
This study indicated that psychotherapy is effective but that the effects are likely smaller than indicated in the published record. As in the case of antidepressant medication research, a minority of researchers may not publish findings that are not in line with their preconceived expectations or wished-for results. Regardless, there is certainly room for psychotherapy to improve. After decades of focusing largely on the efficacy of specific psychotherapies like CBT, psychodynamic therapies, and interpersonal therapy, perhaps it is time to shift to studying how and why therapies work, and which patients benefit from specific interventions. There are promising avenues such as research on: repairing therapeutic alliance tensions, enhancing therapist expertise, progress monitoring and feedback, client factors, and managing countertransference.