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
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.
Placebo Response is Increasing in Trials of Antipsychotic Medications
Rutherford, B.R., Pott, E., Tandler, J.M., Wall, M.M., Roose, S.P., & Lieberman, J.A. (2014). Placebo response in antipsychotic clinical trials: A meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1319.
The placebo response refers to improvements in symptoms among participants in medication trials that cannot be specifically attributed to the active ingredient of the intervention. For this reason, it is common to have a placebo control condition in trials of medications. In these trials, some participants are randomly assigned to the medication condition, and some are randomly assigned to a placebo control condition. Typically, the placebo is a pill that looks exactly like the medication but that has no active ingredient. Both patients and providers are blind or unaware of whether the patient is receiving the active medication or the placebo. The placebo response is usually attributed to a number of sources: (1) the patient’s expectation of receiving benefit, (2) the patient’s contact with a caring provider and the healing effect of factors like therapeutic alliance and provider empathy, (3) statistical and measurement error, and (4) random changes in patient symptoms that are unrelated to the medication or the placebo. The first two sources are psychological factors that are often specifically active and purposefully enhanced in psychotherapies. That is, some psychotherapists actively work to develop an alliance with the patient and to align therapeutic interventions with patient expectations and preferences. (For a broader discussion, see my review of Common Factors in this month’s PPRNet blog.) The placebo response can sometimes be quite powerful such that antidepressant medications, and antipsychotic medications for example, only tend to be modestly superior to placebo. People with schizophrenia have cognitive difficulties that may reduce their expectations of receiving benefits from treatment. These patients also have significant interpersonal difficulties so that their alliance with health care providers may be significantly hampered. For these reasons, it may be possible that the placebo response may play a smaller role in the medical treatment of patients with schizophrenia. Rutherford and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 105 studies of over 24,000 participants from 1960 to the present. Their goal was to examine if the average drug-placebo difference decreased significantly over time (i.e. across years of publication). They found that the placebo response significantly increased from 1960 to the present. That is, the average placebo patient tended to get worse in the 1960s, but by the 2000s the average placebo participant tended to get better. The effect of this trend was large (r = .52). By contrast, treatment change associated with antipsychotic medications decreased over time, and the effect of this trend was moderate (r = -.26). The authors suggested possible explanations for this trend. The average participant in drug trials in the 1960s was more severely ill than the average patient enrolled in drug trials in the 2000s. It is possible that the placebo response is more powerful in less severely ill individuals. Also, the authors suggested that a number of study design factors (e.g., multi site vs single site trials, financial incentives to recruit more patients may result in less severely ill and younger samples) may also contribute to this trend.
One of the practical implications of these findings is that drug companies may be less inclined to fund research and development of new medications for mental illnesses if the research is increasingly showing only modest benefits over control conditions. On the other hand, health care workers who provide: support and empathy, a positive therapeutic alliance, positive expectations about benefits of treatment, attention to patient preferences, and a coherent narrative to understand their patient’s illness may help to enhance the effects of interventions including antipsychotic medications. This may be especially true for younger and less severely ill individuals with schizophrenia.
Rate of Drop-Out From Psychotherapy Differs by Treatment Type, but Only for Some Disorders
Swift, J. K., & Greenberg, R. P. (2014). A treatment by disorder meta-analysis of dropout from psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(3), 193-207.
In one of my first PPRNet Blogs I reported on a meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) in which they found that almost 1 in 5 patients in clinical trials dropped out of therapy. There were no differences between therapeutic orientations in the drop out rates. However, the authors did report that those with eating disorders (23.9%) and personality disorders (25.6%) dropped out at a higher rate than other disorders. Premature termination from therapy is an important problem in that those who drop out are less satisfied and have poorer outcomes than treatment completers. In this follow up to their meta analysis, Swift and Greenberg ask the interesting question of whether premature termination differs across therapy orientations for any of the specific disorders. They compared the drop out rates of different treatment approaches for each of 12 separate disorders. The studies defined drop out in various ways, including: unilateral termination, not attending a set number of sessions, not achieving clinically significant change, etc. Treatment orientations, included: behavior therapy, cognitive–behavioral therapies, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), psychodynamic psychotherapies, solution-focused therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, humanistic/existential/supportive psychotherapies, and integrative approaches. Primary diagnoses included: depression, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, other personality disorder, somatoform disorder, bereavement, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotic disorders, and social phobia. The authors conducted 12 meta analyses, one for each disorder to compare the therapy approaches. Overall, they included 587 studies. There were no differences in drop out rates among therapy approaches for 9 of the 12 disorders. For depression, integrative therapy had significantly lower drop out rates than other approaches (10.9% vs 19.2%), and for PTSD integrative therapy also had the lowest drop out rate compared to other treatments (8.8% vs 21.0%). Also, for PTSD, exposure based interventions had the highest drop out rates (up to 28.5%). For eating disorders, DBT had the lowest drop out rates compared to other approaches (5.9% vs 24.2%), but this was largely explained by older patient samples and shorter duration of treatment in DBT.
There were no differences between treatments in drop out rates for 9 of 12 disorders. Swift and Greenberg argued that for these disorders, other factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, client expectations) rather than specific techniques were enough to keep clients in therapy. For depression and PTSD, integrative treatments resulted in the lowest drop out rates. This suggests that therapists might consider incorporating techniques from other orientations that increase the acceptability of therapy for their clients with depression and PTSD. Use of exposure based interventions for PTSD may require a significant amount of work to prepare clients in order to reduce higher drop out rates.
Does Cognitive Therapy Have an Enduring Effect Superior to Keeping Patients on Medication?
Cuijpers, P., Hollon, S. D., van Straten, A., Bockting, C., Berking, M., & Andersson, G. (2013). Does cognitive behaviour therapy have an enduring effect that is superior to keeping patients on continuation pharmacotherapy? A meta-analysis. BMJ open, 3(4).
In another in a series of meta analyses by this primarily Dutch group, Cuijpers and colleagues tackle the question of whether the longer term effects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT; a short time-limited treatment for depression) outweighs the long term effects of continuation on anti depression medications. CBT is considered an efficacious treatment for depression (see my June 2014 Blog). CBT also has comparable effects as antidepressant medications, but CBT tends to have lower rates of treatment drop outs. What is not clear is whether short term CBT leads to lasting change that is comparable to long term use of medications for depression. One could argue for example, that short term CBT or other comparable psychological interventions teaches patients skills or changes psychological functioning such that future recurrences of depression are less likely. That is, psychological interventions may cause changes that eventually will prevent relapse. Pharmacotherapy on the other hand, may not result in psychological change or acquisition of new skills to forestall a relapse. In fact, patients with chronic depression tend to be kept on medications indefinitely, and patients who recently remit (i.e., no longer have symptoms of depression) are typically kept on pharmacotherapy for another 6 to 12 months to reduce the risk of recurrence. Information about the relative longer term effects of short term treatment with a psychological intervention like CBT versus longer term maintenance on pharmacotherapy can help practitioners and patients decide on the best course of action depending on patient preferences. Cuijpers and colleagues asked: is short term CBT without continuation of treatment as effective as short term treatment of pharmacotherapy with and without long term continuation? They conducted a meta analysis in which the effects of short term CBT were compared to pharmacotherapy in adults diagnosed with depression across follow up periods of 6 to 18 months. Nine studies representing 506 patients were included in the meta analysis. There was a non-significant trend showing that short term CBT outperformed continuation pharmacotherapy at one-year post treatment. On the other hand, CBT resulted in better long term outcomes compared to pharmacotherapy that was discontinued at post treatment. The odds of dropping out of treatment were significantly higher for those receiving pharmacotherapy compared to CBT. There were no differences in any of the findings for type of antidepressant medications.
The findings reaffirm CBT as a first-line treatment of depressive disorders. It also suggests that equally effective other psychological treatments may also have similar enduring effects compared to pharmacotherapy. Patients and providers need to consider all of the evidence when weighing the pros and cons of psychotherapy or medications for the treatment of depression. Although pharmacotherapy might be more widely available to patients through primary care physicians, the research is suggesting that enduring effects and treatment compliance are higher among those who have access to psychological interventions.
Attitudes Toward Seeking Mental Health Care Have Become Increasingly Negative in the Past 40 Years
Mackenzie, C. S., Erickson, J., Deane, F. P., & Wright, M. (2014). Changes in attitudes toward seeking mental health services: A 40-year cross-temporal meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 34(2), 99-106.
Rates of treatment for mental disorders in developed countries have increased over time and this is largely due to the dramatic rise in the use of medications, such as antidepressants over the past 30 years. Concurrently the proportion of people receiving outpatient psychotherapy has declined. Despite the increase of pharmacological interventions, many mental health services in the US do not meet evidence based guidelines, and most people with mental disorders in the US and Canada are not receiving care. Barriers to accessing care include: lack of knowledge (not knowing where to get help); structural barriers (financial costs), and attitudes (stigma, belief that one should handle the problem oneself, and belief that treatment will not help). There is a great deal of evidence that negative attitudes about seeking and receiving help are the most consistent reasons related to low service utilization in Canada and the US. Efforts to reduce stigma, in part, have attempted to define mental illness as a medical or biological disorder likely with the intent of reducing blame of the individual for his or her problems. As Mackenzie and colleagues indicate, this coincided with an aggressive direct-to-consumer advertising of psychotropic medications for mental disorders. And so the perception that mental disorders are biological and that require biological treatments became entrenched in the population. However, as I summarized in the PPRNet October 2013 Blog endorsing neurobiological causes of mental illness is associated with seeing the disorder as persistent, unchangeable, and serious. This increases social distance, which is an aspect of stigma. In their meta analysis, Mackenzie and colleagues reviewed all published studies over the past 40 years that used the Attitudes Toward Seeking Professional Help Scale. They analysed 22 studies with a total sample size of 6,796. They used cross-temporal meta-analysis to correlate year of the study with total scores on the scale. The correlation was large and negative (r = -.53) indicating that participants’ help-seeking attitudes have become significantly more negative over time.
Attitudes toward seeking mental health services have become increasingly negative over the past four decades, which is consistent with worsening public stigma about mental health. This has coincided with an increase in the use of psychotropic medications and a decline in psychotherapy during the same period, despite evidence that psychotherapy is as effective as medications and preferred by patients. As Mackenzie and colleagues suggest, it is possible that attitudes toward mental health care have become increasingly negative due to efforts to convince the public that mental disorders have a neurobiolobic etiology and require biological treatments. When appropriate, clinicians should not promote biological explanations at the expense of psychosocial explanations for mental disorders. Psychological explanations and treatments may result in patients experiencing a greater sense of optimism about change, and greater personal control over the treatments they receive.
Managing Countertransference: Meta-analytic Evidence
Hayes, J.A., Gelso, C.J., & Hummel, A.M. (2011). Managing countertransference. Psychotherapy, 48, 88-97.
This is another in a series of meta-analyses on relationship factors that work in psychotherapy that appeared also in John Norcross’ book Psychotherapy Relationships That Work. As I mentioned in previous blogs, meta-analyses represent the state of the art in systematically reviewing a research literature. In meta-analyses, the effect sizes from many studies are aggregated into an estimate of an overall effect that is much more reliable than any single study. In these meta-analyses, Hayes and colleagues assessed whether therapist countertransference had a negative effect on patient outcomes, and whether successful management of countertransference is related to better therapy outcomes. Traditionally, countertransference was seen as solely related to therapist unconscious conflicts, and countertransference was to be avoided. Broader conceptualizations view countertransference as representing all of the therapist’s reactions to the client. More interpersonal or relational models view countertransference as therapist reactions that complement a patient’s ways of relating, or see countertransference as mutually constructed by therapist and patient, so that the needs and conflicts of both patient and therapist contribute to the manifestation of countertransference in therapy. Hayes and colleagues argue that the definition of countertransference must include some aspect of therapist unresolved conflicts, and that countertransference in the therapist is potentially useful to understanding patient dynamics and personality style. Countertransference may be reflected in therapist anger, boredom, anxiety, despair, arousal, etc. These feelings range in intensity as well. According to Hayes and colleagues, successful management of countertransference might involve: self-insight (therapist being aware of their own feelings, attitudes, personality, etc.); self integration (therapist’s healthy character structure); anxiety management (therapist’s ability to control and understand own anxiety); empathy (the ability to put one’s self in the other’s shoes in order to focus on the client’s needs); and conceptualizing ability (therapist’s ability to draw on theory to understand the patient’s role in the therapeutic relationship). Hayes’ and colleagues meta-analyses included between 7 to 11 studies of 478 to 1065 participants. The findings showed that countertransference in the therapist was associated with negative patient outcomes, though the effect was small. Successful management of countertransference was associated with better therapy outcomes, and the effect was large.
Successful management of countertransference is a characteristic of effective therapists. Therapists can work on a number of issues to reduce the negative impact of countertransference and to increase its utility in helping to understand certain patients. Therapists can work to gain self-understanding and work on their own psychological health. The research suggests the importance of therapists resolving their own major conflicts through personal therapy and clinical supervision. Having a good grasp of psychological theory and theories of therapy can also help with using countertransference effectively, as long as the theory is not used defensively by the therapist. Further, there is value in therapists admitting mistakes and acknowledging that their own conflict was the source of the error. Although countertransference theory and research focuses on the therapist, Hayes and colleagues acknowledge that some clients evoke greater and more intense countertransference reactions that others.