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
Patient Experience of Negative Effects of Psychotherapy
Crawford, M.J., Thana, L., Farquharson, L., Palmer, L., Hancock, E.... Parry, G.D. (2016). Patient experience of negative effects of psychological treatment: results of a national survey. British Journal of Psychiatry, 208, 260-265.
There is lots of evidence that psychotherapy is effective for a wide variety of disorders. However, a number of studies report that between 5% and 10% of patients report higher levels of symptoms following treatment compared to when they started. Although the side effects and negative outcomes in pharmacological treatment studies are routinely reported, negative outcomes in psychological treatment studies are rarely reported and investigated. In this very large survey, Crawford and colleagues analysed data from an audit of state funded psychological therapies for depression and anxiety in England and Wales. Adult patients from 220 centers were invited to complete an anonymous service-user questionnaire that asked about their experiences of the processes and outcomes of psychotherapy. Some of the questions asked if clients experienced a “lasting bad effect” from the treatment. Nearly 15,000 individuals responded to the survey. More than half (51%) were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and most clients received only one treatment, which was predominantly individual therapy. Most (74.35%) received fewer than 10 sessions. Of the respondents, 763 (5.23%) reported that therapy had a “lasting bad effect”, and an additional 7.70% were “unsure” whether they experienced a lasting bad effect. People over 65 years old were less likely to have a lasting negative effect, and those from minority ethnic groups and non-heterosexuals were more likely to report lasting bad effects. In addition, those who did not know what type of therapy they received were more likely to have lasting bad effects.
A substantial minority of patients reported lasting negative effects from their psychological treatment. With approximately a million Canadians receiving outpatient psychological treatment of one form or another each year, these findings imply that thousands of patients could have experienced a lasting negative effect. The findings suggest that psychotherapists need to be highly sensitive to cultural and ethnic minority issues and acquire cultural competence. The same is true when treating non-heterosexuals. Clinicians should also make sure to provide sufficient information to patients about the type of treatment they are receiving as part of the informed consent process. Attending to these issues may reduce the likelihood of therapeutic alliance ruptures that may be related to lasting negative effects.
Does Clinician Confidence Lead to Accurate Clinical Judgement?
Miller, D.J., Spengler, E.S., & Spengler, P.M. (2015). A meta-analysis of confidence and judgement accuracy in clinical decision making. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 553-567.
People can make errors in judgements based on decision making rules that are biased. Clinicians also may be prone to making such errors. In their Nobel Prize winning work, Kahneman and Tversky outlined a number of heuristics (i.e., mental shortcuts) that lead to cognitive biases, which in turn affect accuracy of decisions. For example, when making a differential diagnosis clinicians may: rely too heavily on only one piece of information which may be the most available (e.g., “I vividly remember a patient with conversion disorder who had the same history”); or ignore that a particular event (e.g., conversion disorder) is very rare; or seek confirming rather than disconfirming evidence (e.g., the patient has PTSD symptoms that can explain some symptoms). Complicating these biases is the tendency for clinicians to be over-confident. For example, in one study the average psychotherapist rated their performance as better than 80% of their peers, and no therapist rated him or herself in the lower 50th percentile among peers. In their meta analysis, Miller and colleagues reviewed 36 studies of the relationship between clinician confidence ratings and accuracy of decisions among 1,485 clinicians. The authors were particularly interested in the overconfidence bias, which occurs when individuals report higher confidence in their judgments than is warranted by their actual accuracy. For example, studies have assessed the impact of clinician confidence on clinical accuracy in: detecting random responding on a psychological test, diagnosing a brain disorder verified by medical test using neuropsychological test data, predicting future violence and recidivism in offenders, and patient progress in psychotherapy. Most studies find that clinicians are quite confident in their judgments. But, is this confidence warranted? Miller and colleagues’ meta analysis found a significant but small (r = .15) association between confidence and accuracy. This suggests that clinician confidence is only slightly indicative of decision-making accuracy. The effect was a little larger for more experienced clinicians (r = .25), indicating that more experience and training resulted in somewhat more consistency between a clinician’s confidence and their clinical accuracy. Further, higher confidence leads to poorer accuracy when clinicians have to make repeated decisions without feedback, when feedback is not written, and when an event is rare.
Clinicians, like everyone else, are sometimes subject to making errors when they only look at confirming evidence, when they rely only on their own memory rather than objective data, and when they are over-confident. Accuracy can be increased when clinicians use decision-making aids that provide quality corrective feedback. Aids to help in decision making might include the use of: objective standardized test data, repeated measurements with feedback to assess patient progress in psychotherapy, and actively looking for disconfirming evidence before making a clinical judgement. As the authors conclude, confidence is not a good substitute for accuracy.
Patients’ Experiences of Clinicians’ Crying During Psychotherapy
Tritt, A., Kelly, J., & Waller, G. (2015). Patients’ experiences of clinicians’ crying during psychotherapy for eating disorders. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 373-380.
Psychotherapy can be an emotionally intensive experience for both patients and therapists. In a large survey, more than 70% of therapists reported having cried in therapy, and 30% cried during the past month. Therapists who cried almost always saw the experience as positive or neutral (99.2%) for the patient and the therapeutic relationship. Do clients feel the same way about therapists who cry? In this study, Tritt and colleagues surveyed 188 adult patients with an eating disorder who were recently in psychotherapy. Of those, 107 (56.9%) reported that their therapist had cried during therapy. There was no association between frequency of therapist crying and therapist age, patient diagnosis, or type of psychotherapy (i.e., manual-based or not). Therapists who cried a moderate amount were seen by clients as having a positive demeanor (i.e., happy, firm, consistent), whereas therapists who cried more extremely were rated by clients as having a more negative demeanor (i.e., anxious, angry, bored). If therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a positive demeanor, then therapist crying had a positive impact on therapy. That is, clients reported a greater respect for the therapist, greater willingness to express emotions, and higher willingness to undertake therapy in the future. However, if therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a negative demeanor, then therapist crying had a negative impact on therapy. That is, clients were less willing to express emotions in therapy and to undertake therapy in the future. Further, if the therapist who cried was rated as having a negative demeanor, the client experienced more self blame, assumed that there was something wrong in the therapist’s life, and that the therapist and client did not share the same perspective on the client’s life and treatment.
This small but unique and interesting survey sheds some light on clients’ experiences of therapists who cry during therapy. More than half of clients experienced their therapist crying during therapy. In contrast to surveys of therapists who tend to evaluate therapist crying as exclusively positive or neutral, this survey found that many but not all clients experienced therapist crying as positive. It depends on how the client perceives the therapist as a person. Therapists who are seen by clients as happy, firm, and consistent may assume that patients will experience their crying as a positive indicator of the therapeutic relationship. However, therapists who are seen by clients as anxious, bored, or angry cannot assume that clients will see their tears as being positive for therapy.
Deliberate Practice in Highly Effective Therapists
Chow, D. L., Miller, S. D., Seidel, J. A., Kane, R. T., Thornton, J. A., & Andrews, W. P. (2015). The role of deliberate practice in the development of highly effective psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 337.
In 2014, Tracey and colleagues caused a stir when they claimed that there was no evidence of expertise in psychotherapy (see my July, 2014 blog). They defined expertise as increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience – and they concluded that psychotherapy research has not provided evidence that therapist performance improves with experience. The issue is important because differences between therapists account for over 5% of patient outcomes. This seems small, but it is larger than variance in outcomes accounted for by the use of empirically supported treatments (0% - 4%), and almost as large as the variance accounted for by client-rated alliance (5% - 15%). Across a wide variety of professions (e.g., music, medicine, chess, sports), professionals’ engagement in deliberate practice results in improvement and superior performance. However, there is little evidence of this in psychotherapy. In this article by Chow and colleagues, the authors look specifically at “deliberate practice” defined as individualized training activities to improve one’s performance through repetition and refinement. To be effective, deliberate practice has to be focused on achieving specific targets and guided by conscious monitoring of outcomes over a long period of time. The authors collected a sample of 69 therapists who worked across a number of organizations and practice areas, and these therapists provided data related to 4,850 patients. Seventeen of the 69 therapists who treated 1,632 clients also provided data on professional development activities. Therapists were multidisciplinary (i.e., counsellors, psychologists, marital therapists, social workers, psychotherapists) with an average of over 8 years of experience, who worked mainly in private practice or within the national health service in the U.K., and who primarily treated adult patients with depression or anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes were measured repeatedly with a valid standardized scale, and deliberate practice was self reported by therapists using a measure that asked about the frequency and time therapists engaged in 25 activities outside of work aimed at improving therapeutic skills. On average, clients improved by the end of treatment and the effect was large (d = 1.22). As expected therapists differed in their patient outcomes (i.e., some therapists were reliably more effective than others). Therapist demographic variables, theoretical orientation, years of experience, and practice setting were not related to patient outcomes. However, the amount of time in deliberate practice activities was associated with a reduction in client distress. Compared to the less effective therapists (2.62 hrs/wk in deliberate practice), the best performing therapists (7.39 hrs/wk in deliberate practice) spent about 2.81 times more time on deliberate practice. Therapists rated the following deliberate practice activities as the most relevant to their patients’ outcomes: reviewing challenging cases, attending training workshops, reflecting on past sessions, and reflecting on what to do in future sessions.
Although this is a single study with a relatively small sample of therapists, it is one of those rare studies to assess the effects of therapist deliberate practice on patient outcomes. As is the case with other professions, reviewing one’s performance can play an important role in identifying errors, altering course, and remediating problems. As Tracey and colleagues indicated, therapists need good quality information in order to learn from their errors and make adjustments so that clients can improve. Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes especially for at-risk cases. Chow and colleagues go further to suggest targeted learning by using standardized clients within training and supervision contexts. Deliberate practice is not only for newer or less experienced therapists, since experienced therapists also vary in their ability to engage and help clients. Highly effective therapists spend more time engaging in activities outside of their practice specifically aimed at improving their performance.
Psychotherapy Reduces Hospital Costs and Physician Visits
Abbass, A., Kisely, S., Rasic, D., Town, J.M., & Johansson, R. (2015). Long-term healthcare cost reduction with Intensive Short-term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in tertiary psychiatric care. Journal of Psychiatric Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.03.001
Several years ago Lazar (2010) published a book detailing the cost-effectiveness of psychotherapy for a variety of disorders. That is, her systematic review found that on most economic indicators (lost income, decreased disability, decreased health utilization) psychotherapy resulted in an immediate cost reduction over and above the cost of the treatment. In this study from Halifax, Canada, Abbass and colleagues looked at the effects of psychotherapy, specifically of Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), on the long-term reduction in hospital costs and physician visits. Abass and colleagues argue that adverse childhood events are an important determinant of adult mental health problems and of increased costs to the health system likely because of the consequence of problems with emotion regulation. Psychotherapies like ISTDP specifically address issues that are a consequence of childhood maltreatment and so might reduce some of the consequent health care costs. Abbass and colleagues provided ISTDP to 890 patients in the Halifax health care system who were referred to the psychotherapy service from emergency departments, physicians, and mental health providers. These patients’ outcomes were compared to 192 patients not seen by the clinic for various reasons. Most common diagnoses of the total sample were: somatoform disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and depressive disorder. Participant completed measures of psychological distress, and the research team were able to access provincial health usage data tracked over 3 years. Fifty eight therapists of various skill levels (psychiatrists, psychologists, family physicians, trainees) provided ISTDP. The average patient attended 7.3 sessions which cost $708 (estimated by salaries in 2006). Patients receiving psychotherapy had physician and hospital costs that decreased from $3,224 to $4759 in Canadian dollars per year over three years (again in 2006 dollars). Patients in the control condition not receiving ISTDP showed health care costs that increased from $368 to $2,663 per year. These trajectories of health care costs were significantly different. Yearly physician and health care costs for patients prior to being treated with ISTDP were greater than those of the general Canadian population, but 3 years post ISTDP their health care costs were less than the general Canadian population. In addition, compared to control patients those treated with psychotherapy showed a significant reduction in psychological distress.
This study by Abbass and colleagues demonstrates that short term psychotherapy provided to a broad range of patients and targeting health and illness behaviors related to problems with emotion regulation can reduce health care costs. These reductions in hospital and physician visits occurred in the short term and were sustained over several years. Some patients may require longer treatment, but the evidence suggests that short term interventions should be tried first.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Evidence for Psychotherapy of PTSD in Adults Who Experienced Childhood Abuse
Ehring, T., Welboren, R., Morina, N., Wicherts, J.M., Freitag, J., & Emmelkamp, P.M.G (2014). Meta-analysis of psychological treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder in adult survivors of childhood abuse. Clinical Psychology Review, 34, 645-657.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs at a very high frequency among those who experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. As adults these individuals often request mental health services. Previous meta analyses of psychotherapies for PTSD have combined samples of those with PTSD due to childhood maltreatment and those due to trauma in adulthood. This meta analysis by Ehring and colleagues is the first specifically to look at treatment of PTSD in those with childhood abuse. Some argue that PTSD due to childhood abuse is different because of the high level of complex symptoms like emotion regulation problems, impulsivity, depression, dissociation, substance abuse, and others. And so treatments for PTSD related to childhood abuse may require different characteristics and may have different outcomes. Further, there is a long standing debate about whether trauma-focused treatments are appropriate for those with PTSD who have high levels of complex symptoms. There is concern for example that the focus on trauma memories may exacerbate symptoms like dissociation. Previous reviews showed that treatments targeting the trauma memory (i.e., focus on processing the memory and its meaning) had the largest effect on PTSD outcomes. This is likely because of the impact that memory processes (i.e., re-accessing memories, maladaptive attributions of memories) have on the maintenance of the disorder. Would these large treatment effects also be found in PTSD that resulted specifically from childhood abuse? (A note about meta analyses: meta analyses are the best way to synthesize a research area because this method combines the effect sizes from multiple studies into a single effect size. The findings of meta analyses are much more reliable than findings from any single study. See my November 2013 blog). Ehrling and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 16 studies that included over 1200 participants with PTSD due to childhood abuse. Treatments included: trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), non-trauma-focused CBT, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and others. Psychological interventions were effective for PTSD related to childhood abuse, and the effects were large for both PTSD symptom severity and for other symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, dissociation). Psychological interventions were more effective that control conditions (i.e., wait lists or treatments as usual), and these effects were moderate. Effects remained large or moderate well into post-treatment follow-ups. Trauma focused treatments were more effective than non-trauma-focused treatments, and individual interventions were more effective than group-based interventions.
Psychological interventions for PTSD in adults who experienced childhood abuse are effective in reducing symptom severity with moderate to large effects. Other symptoms like anxiety, depression, and dissociation also showed large positive changes in these individuals. Research shows that trauma-focused treatments are under-used in routine practice. This may be due to the concern that trauma-focused treatments may not be safe in some individuals with complex symptoms. Trauma-focused treatments may lead to higher effects than non-trauma focused treatments, indicating the potential importance of processing the trauma memory.