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 transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
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
Efficacy of Psychotherapies for Borderline Personality Disorder
Cristea, I.A., Gentili, C., Cotet, C.D., Palomba, D., Barbui, C., & Cuijpers, P. (2017). Efficacy of psychotherapies for borderline personality disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.4287.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a debilitating disorder characterized by: severe instability of emotions, relationships, and behaviors. More than 75% of those with BPD have engaged in deliberate self-harm, and suicide rates are between 8% and 10%. BPD is the most common of the personality disorders with a high level of functional impairment. Several psychotherapies have been developed to treat BPD. Most notably, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychodynamic treatments like mentalization-based and transference-focused psychotherapy. This meta-analysis by Cristea and colleagues examined the efficacy of psychotherapy for BPD. Studies included in the meta-analysis (33 trials of 2256 clients) were randomized controlled trials in which a psychotherapy was compared to a control condition for adults with BPD. For all borderline-relevant outcomes (combined borderline symptoms, self-harm, parasuicidal and suicidal behaviors) yielded a significant but small effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions at post treatment (g = 0.35; 95%CI: 0.20, 0.50). At follow up, there was again a significant effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions with a moderate effect (g = 0.45; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.75). When the different treatment types were looked at separately, DBT (g = 0.34; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.53) and psychodynamic approaches (g = 0.41; 95% CI: 0.12, 0.69) were more effective than control interventions, while CBT (g = 0.24; 95% CI: −0.01, 0.49) was not. The authors also reported a significant amount of publication bias, suggesting that published results may be positively biased in favor of the psychotherapies.
The results indicate a small effect of psychotherapies at post-treatment and a moderate effect at follow-up for the treatment of BPD. DBT and psychodynamic treatment were significantly more effective than control conditions, whereas CBT was not. However, all effects were likely inflated by publication bias, indicating a tendency to publish only positive findings. Nevertheless, various independent psychotherapies demonstrated efficacy for symptoms of self harm, suicide, and general psychopathology in BPD.
The Importance of Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health Treatment
Greenberg, R.P. (2016). The rebirth of psychosocial importance in a drug-filled world. American Psychologist, 71, 781-791.
In this thoughtful piece, Greenberg reviews the research on psychosocial factors that affect mental health treatment outcomes – including for medications and in psychotherapy. There has been an important shift in the last few decades to view mental disorders, including depression, as biologically based. For example, surveys indicate that the public’s belief in biological causes of mental illness rose from 77% to 88% during a 10 year period. During the same period the belief in the primacy of biological treatment for mental disorders rose from 48% to 60%. Further, 20% of women and 15% of men in the US are currently taking antidepressant medications. Some of these trends are due to direct to consumer marketing of medications by the pharmaceutical industry, which saw a 300% increase in sales in antidepressants. Some of these trends are also due to Federal agencies like the National Institute of Mental Health that vigorously pursued an agenda of biological research. But what is the evidence for a purely biological view of mental health? Greenberg notes that the evidence is poor. For example, no one has been able to demonstrate that a chemical imbalance actually exists to explain depressive symptoms – which undermines the reason for using medications to treat depression. Further, research on the efficacy of antidepressant medications shows that they perform only slightly better than a placebo pill, prompting a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine to declare that this difference is unlikely to be clinically meaningful. The placebo effect is essentially a psychosocial effect. It refers to: the patient’s experience of a caring relationship with a credible professional, and the patient’s expectations and hopes of getting better. Placebo is a very real phenomenon that also has an impact on purely medical interventions like surgeries. In psychotherapy trials, relational/contextual factors like therapeutic alliance, expectations, therapist empathy, and countertransference likely account for more of the client’s outcomes than the particular therapeutic technique that is used. In both psychotherapy and medication treatments for depression, it appears that the more patients perceived their doctors as caring, empathic, open, and sincere, the greater their symptom improvement. There is also good evidence that psychotherapy is as effective and antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, and that antidepressants are slightly superior for chronic depression. However, even the latter should be interpreted carefully and within the context that patients prefer psychotherapy, their adherence to medications is poorer, side effects are worse for medications, and drop out rates are lower for psychotherapy.
Patients benefit from antidepressant medications, but perhaps not exactly for the reasons that they are told. Psychosocial factors likely account for a large proportion of the effects of many medically-based interventions for mental disorders. Psychosocial factors are actively used in many psychotherapies, and therapists’ qualities like their ability to establish an alliance, empathy, and professionalism account for a moderate to large proportion of why patients get better.
Has Increased Availability of Treatment Reduced the Prevalence of Mental Disorders?
Jorm, A.F., Patten, S.B., Brugha, T.S., & Mojtabai, R. (2017). Has increased provision of treatment reduced the prevalence of common mental disorders? Review of the evidence from four countries. World Psychiatry, 16, 90-99.
Mental disorders are a major source of disability. However, many individuals remain untreated, such that 36% to 50% of serious cases in industrialized countries went untreated in the previous year. In 2001 the World Health Organization argued for making treatment more accessible and to train more mental health professionals. In this wide-ranging review, Jorm and colleagues look at data from the U.K, the U.S., Canada, and Australia to assess if in fact treatment provision has increased over time, and whether this increase was associated with declines in the prevalence of common mental disorders. In all of the countries surveyed, antidepressant use among those with mental disorders (mainly anxiety and depressive disorders) increased dramatically from 1990 to 2011, such that their use rose by 300% or more during that period. The use of psychotherapy increased in Australia by about 46% among those with a diagnosable disorder. While the rates of psychotherapy-use remained the same in the U.K., they declined dramatically in the U.S. from 71.1% in the late 1980s to 43.1% in 2007 (no data was available from Canada). At the same time however, the prevalence of mental disorders has been increasing or remaining the same in all of the four countries. For example, in England the prevalence of common mental disorders among women went from 18.1% in 1993 to 18.9% in 2007. The authors then speculated as to why the dramatic increase in the use of antidepressants was not followed by a decrease in diagnosed mental disorders. They were able to rule out a number of possibilities like increased reporting of mental illnesses, or an increase in risk factors in the communities involved. The authors did suggest however that antidepressant medications may not be prescribed as intended by primary health care providers. For example, in Australia, only 50% of people prescribed antidepressants receive them as recommended in clinical guidelines. In an Alberta, Canada study, 67.2% of those who reported taking an antidepressant had no active mood or anxiety disorder at the time of the survey. Among those with major depression, only 14.3% reported receiving psychotherapy.
This large review highlights some findings that are already well known: that antidepressant use is dramatically on the rise, and that psychotherapy use is declining slightly over time. This may be due to the quick and easy availability of antidepressant medications, the direct to consumer advertising done by the pharmaceutical industry in some countries, and to a possible cultural need for easy fixes to complex problems. What is new in this review, is that the rise in available antidepressant medications appears not to have made a dent in the rate of mental illness in four industrialized countries.
Placebo Response Rates in Antidepressant Trials
Furukawa, T.A., Cipriani, A., Atkinson, L.A., Leucht, S., Ogawa, Y., … Salanti, G. (2016). Placebo response rates in antidepressant trials: A systematic review of published and unpublished double-blind randomised controlled studies. Lancet Psychiatry, 3, 1059-1066.
The placebo response in medication trials is an interesting and important phenomenon. Placebo response refers to improvement in clients that is due to therapeutically powerful factors like client’s expectations that an intervention will be effective and to the therapeutic relationship with the health care provider. In medication trials, placebo is seen as problematic because researchers typically want to demonstrate the effectiveness of the active medication (e.g., selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) independent of any other factors. For this reason, randomized clinical trials of medications are often double-blind and placebo controlled (i.e., clients and clinicians are unaware of who received the active medication and who received the inert placebo pill). It has widely been suspected that over the years the placebo response has been increasing in antidepressant trials possibly due to the types of patients included in trials (i.e., more recently, patients with more severe symptoms are included) and to other methodological issues (e.g., use of multi-centre trials, dosing schedule). An increasing placebo response is suspected of contributing to the growing number of failed anti-depressant trials (i.e., trials that show little or no effectiveness of the medication). Using advanced statistical methods, Furukawa and colleagues evaluated in a meta analysis if placebo response in medication trials was increasing over time. They defined a response as a 50% or greater reduction in observer-rated depression scale scores from baseline to 8 weeks. Their review included 252 placebo controlled trials of antidepressants from 1978 to 2015. Placebo response rates ranged widely from 0% to 70% (I2 = 74.1%) with a mean placebo response of 35% to 40%. Year of publication was not significantly related to placebo response rate after controlling for methodological variables like length of the trial, multi-centre trials, and dose regimen. That is, once change in the methodology of conducting trials over time was accounted for, the placebo response appeared to remain largely the same from year to year.
The placebo response is very real and complicates our understanding of how and why antidepressants might work for some patients. About 35% to 40% of patients who benefit from antidepressants may be benefitting largely because of the expectation of getting better. Greater treatment response to antidepressants for a large proportion of patients appears to be dependent on the therapeutic features of supportive contact with a caring health professional.
The Poor State of Psychotherapy Research for Indigenous People
Pomerville, A., Burrage, R.L., & Gone, J.P. (2016). Empirical findings from psychotherapy research with indigenous populations: A systematic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 1023-1038.
Indigenous people around the world have a higher incidence of mental illness compared to other ethnic or racial groups. These higher rates may be related to the historical effects of colonization and to current discrimination. Despite this, there is very little empirical research on psychotherapy provided to Indigenous peoples. Psychotherapy, as commonly practiced, has Eurocentric values by emphasizing individuality, independence, rationality, assertiveness, and by sometimes taking an ahistorical present-centered focus. These values may conflict with some Indigenous cultures that emphasize community, interdependence, mysticism, modesty, and the historical context of current functioning. Hence, psychotherapy as typically defined may require adaptations when used with Indigenous groups. In their review, Pomerville and colleagues examine what is currently known about psychotherapy with Indigenous populations. The populations studied in the existing research includes Indigenous peoples of the US, Australia, Canada, Pacific Islands, and New Zealand. There were no psychotherapy studies prior to 1986, and only 23 studies since then. Most studies emphasized some form of cultural adaptation of the treatment. The majority of studies focused on substance abuse, with only a few on anxiety and depression. Only two studies were controlled outcomes studies (i.e., randomized controlled trials considered by many to provide the best evidence from a single study). Research on individual therapy for Indigenous adolescents is completely lacking. The authors concluded that the efficacy of novel or adapted treatments or the generalizability of existing empirically supported treatments to Indigenous people are currently unknown.
The virtual absence of controlled outcome trials of psychotherapies for Indigenous populations is serious gap in the practice of mental health interventions. This state of the research is particularly problematic given the high rates of mental illness and alarming rates of suicide among adolescents in Indigenous populations. Some studies found discontent among Indigenous communities with the current application of empirically supported treatments, and others argue that Indigenous healing be given the same legitimacy despite no controlled outcome research. On the other hand some authors favour training cultural competence among clinicians who practice standard empirically supported treatments. Pomerville and colleagues suggest that in the absence of evidence, tailoring psychotherapy to address the needs of Indigenous clients by taking into account specific practices of their communities may improve retention and outcomes.
Do All Depression Scales Do a Good Job of Measuring Depression?
Fried, E.I. (2016). The 52 symptoms of major depression: Lack of content overlap among seven common depression scales. Journal of Affective Disorders.
Depression is a leading cause of disability in the world and an important reason why people seek psychotherapy. Depression is also the most commonly studied disorder in psychological treatment studies. Measuring depression with self-report or clinician rating scales seems straight forward, but it turns out that it is not. This is important for clinicians because we assume that scales assess depressive symptoms in a reliable way, and that this measurement gives a valid indicator of a patient’s level of depression and improvements in the depressive symptoms. In this review Fried examined the content of the seven of the most common measures of depression including: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD), and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRDS). Many might assume depression to represent a single construct – meaning depression is sometimes thought to represent one unitary thing that is consistent across individuals. Because of that assumption, some might consider depression scales to be interchangeable. But according to Fried, these seven scales listed a total of 52 different symptoms. Using a statistical approach called a Jaccard Index, Fried found that the overlap in symptoms among the different depression scales was low (i.e., different scales seemed to be tapping into different symptoms). When he reviewed the content of each scale, this low overlap seemed clear. For example, the BDI (developed by the founder of CBT) emphasizes cognitive symptoms of depression, the CESD has a number of items that are only indirectly related to depressive symptoms (like interpersonal sensitivity), and the HRDS (often used in medication trials to evaluate side effects) emphasizes somatic symptoms like insomnia, fatigue, and sexual dysfunction. Perhaps this lack of overlap is not so surprising given that the concept of depression is likely multidimensional and not representative of a single uniform construct.
So what does this mean for clinical practice? Many clinicians use a depression scale to assess their patients and monitor their outcomes. Which scale one uses seems to make a difference in terms of what is being measured and what outcomes are monitored. Using the BDI will emphasize the cognitive aspects of depression, whereas ratings with the HRDS may emphasize the somatic aspects of depression. Fried recommends that researchers use more than one scale, and if the findings differ across scales, then that provides more nuanced information about the effects and outcomes of depression and its treatment. Perhaps the same can be said for clinical practice – if clinicians use only one depression scale, then they should be aware of what aspects of depression or what kind of information about their patent’s depression that the scale is providing.