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
Patients are More Likely to Refuse and Drop Out of Pharmacotherapy Than Psychotherapy
Swift, J.K., Greenberg, R.P., Tompkins, K.A., & Parkin, S.R. (2017). Treatment refusal and premature termination in psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and their combination: A meta-analysis of head-to-head comparisons. Psychotherapy, 54, 47-57.
Treatment refusal occurs when a patient is offered an intervention but then fails to begin it. In treatment studies, this may occur when a patient initially agrees to participate in a trial but then discontinues immediately after finding out what intervention they will receive. In a clinic setting, a patient might call a mental health professional to schedule an initial appointment but not show up. This causes problems for the patient who is not receiving treatment, and for the professional who has an unfilled therapy hour. Premature termination, on the other hand occurs when a patient begins treatment but ends unilaterally against the provider’s recommendations and prior to recovery. Again, these patients typically do not improve and they do not receive an adequate dose of the treatment. Barriers to accepting or completing psychotherapy might include the cost, and the time and effort involved to engage in the therapeutic process. Barriers to accepting or completing pharmacotherapy might also include cost, unpleasant side effects, and fewer contacts with a non-judgemental listening professional. The aim of Swift and colleagues’ meta-analysis was to compare rates of treatment refusal and premature termination between psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy. The meta-analysis included 186 studies, 57 of which (with 6,693 participants) reported data on treatment refusal. A significant number of patients (8.2%; 95% CI: 7.0, 9.6%) failed to start treatment after they were told what treatment they would receive. Participants were 1.76 times more likely (95% CI: 1.27, 2.45) to refuse treatment if they were offered pharmacotherapy compared to psychotherapy. The average premature termination rate from treatment was 21.9% (95% CI: 20.6%, 23.3%). Patients assigned to pharmacotherapy were 1.2 times more likely (95% CI: 1.03, 1.41) than those who were assigned to psychotherapy to discontinue treatment prematurely.
Participants were almost 2 times more likely to refuse treatment if they were offered pharmacotherapy compared to psychotherapy, especially for social anxiety disorder, depression, and panic disorder. Similarly, premature termination was higher for pharmacotherapy compared to psychotherapy, especially for eating disorders and depressive disorders. Previous research indicated that patients are 3 times more likely to prefer psychotherapy over medications for mental disorders. Research indicates that mental health professionals should work to incorporate patient preferences, values, and beliefs when making treatment decisions in order to reduce premature termination and treatment refusal.
Individual versus Group Psychotherapy
Burlingame, G.M., Seebeck, J.D., Janis, R.A., Whitcomb, K.E., Barkowski, S., Rosendahl, J., & Strauss, B. (2016). Outcome differences between individual and group formats when identical and nonidentical treatments, patients, and doses are compared: A 25-year meta-analytic perspective. Psychotherapy, 53, 446-461.
With increasing service demands being put on mental health systems, clinicians and administrators are looking to more efficient ways of providing care to more patients. One option is group therapy in which more patients can be treated with fewer resources. However, are groups as effective as individual therapy for mental disorders? This meta-analysis by Burlingame and colleagues addresses this question by examining 67 studies in which group and individual therapy were directly compared within the same study. The majority of studies included adults with anxiety, mood, or substance use disorders, with some studies focusing on medical conditions, eating or personality disorders. Two-thirds of studies were of cognitive-behavioral therapy, but other treatment types like interpersonal, psychodynamic, and supportive therapy were also tested. Groups were defined as having at least 3 patients per group. The average number of sessions for group and individual therapy were equivalent (group M = 14.67, SD = 8.75; individual 15.94, SD = 14.37)), and as expected group therapy sessions were longer in minutes (M = 100.39, SD = 30.87) than individual therapy sessions (M = 56.55, SD = 14.37) given the multi-person demands of groups. Groups were primarily closed to new members after starting, they tended to have homogenous membership based on diagnosis, and groups tended to be co-led by 2 therapists. Individual and group therapy were not significantly different for all disorders and outcomes at post-treatment (g = -0.03; 95%CI = -0.10, 0.04), short-term follow-up (g = 0.01; 95% CI = -0.13, 0.11), and long-term follow-up (g = 0.00; 95% CI= -0.12, 0.13). Drop out rates for group therapy (17.28%) and individual therapy (14.96%) were not significantly different (OR = 1.10; 95% CI = 0.90, 1.33), and patients were likely to accept group therapy (88.76%) as often as they accepted individual therapy (84.83%) when one or the other was offered. Pre- to post-treatment effect sizes were moderately large for both interventions (group: g = 0.60, 95% CI = 0.48, 0.72; individual: g = 0.53, 95% CI = 0.42, 0.65). Patients presenting with depression, substance us, anxiety, or eating disorders had the highest level of improvement.
When identical treatments, patients, and doses are compared, individual and group therapy resulted in equivalent outcomes across of a variety of disorders. This is good news for clinicians and agencies looking to maximize resources to treat more patients. However, running a group is more complex than providing individual therapy. Finding a sufficient number of patients to start a group, assessing and preparing each patient prior to starting a group, writing a note per patient per session, and managing attrition is logistically more challenging. Further, most therapists are not formally trained to provide group interventions and so they may find the task of managing a substantially larger amount of within-session group process information to be complex. Finally, as Burlingame and colleagues indicate, there are institutional considerations so that group programs require a milieu that supports group referrals and flexibility in scheduling. Nevertheless the findings of this meta analysis indicate the potential for group therapy to provide efficacious treatments for mental disorders.
The Quality of Psychotherapy Research Affects The Size of Treatment Effects for CBT
Cuijpers, P., Cristea, I.A., Karyotaki, E., Reijnders, M., Huibers, M.J.J. (2016). How effective are cognitive behavior therapies for major depression and anxiety disorders? A meta-analytic update of the evidence. World Psychiatry, 15, 245-258.
You might think that an esoteric topic like study quality should not really be of interest or concern to clinicians – but it is an important topic with practice implications. In this meta analysis Pim Cuijpers and his research group updated the meta analytic evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for a variety of disorders (major depressive disorder [MDD], generalized anxiety disorder [GAD], panic disorder [PAD], and social anxiety disorder [SAD]). The important thing about meta analyses is that the method combines the effect sizes from all relevant studies into a single metric – an average effect size. These average effect sizes are much more reliable than findings from any one single study. In fact, whenever possible, clinical decision-making should be based on a meta analysis and systematic review and not on a single study. Meta analyses also allow one to give more weight to those studies that have larger sample sizes, and that employ better methodologies. Even more, meta analytic techniques allow one to adjust the averaged effect size by taking into account publication bias (i.e., an indication of the effects from studies that might have been completed but were never published, likely because they had unfavorable findings). Usually, average effect sizes are lower when they are adjusted for study quality and publication bias. Cuijpers and colleagues’ meta analyses found that the unadjusted average effects of CBT were large for each of the disorders (ranging from g = .75 to .88 [confidence intervals not reported]). However adjusting for publication bias reduced the effects to medium-sized for MDD (g = .65) and GAD (g = .59). Only 17.4% of the individual studies of CBT were considered to be of “high quality” (i.e., studies that use the best methodology to reduce bias, like random allocation, blinding, using all the available data, etc.). After adjusting for study quality, the effects of CBT for SAD (g = .61) and PAD (g = .76) were also reduced to medium-sized. Not surprisingly, the effects of CBT were largest when the treatment was compared to a wait-list no-treatment control group. The effects were small to moderate when CBT was compared to treatment as usual or to a placebo.
Even when adjusting for study quality and publication bias, the average effects of CBT were medium-sized for a variety of common disorders compared to control conditions. Unfortunately, the quality of the studies was not high for most trials, reducing the effect sizes and lowering our confidence in the efficacy of the treatment. Nevertheless, the findings of this meta analysis suggest that CBT will likely have moderate effects for the average patient with MDD, SAD, PAD, and GAD.
Interpersonal Psychotherapy for Mental Health Problems
Cuijpers, P., Donker, T., Weissman, M.M., Ravitz, P., & Cristea, I.A. (2016). Interpersonal psychotherapy for mental health problems: A comprehensive meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 173, 680-687.
Interpersonal psychotherapy is a structured therapy that was originally developed for the treatment of depression. The therapy focuses on stressful life events like grief, interpersonal disputes, life transitions, social isolation or deficits that may cause symptoms. Interpersonal psychotherapy also helps people to connect with social supports and improve their relationships. The treatment emphasizes developing a therapeutic alliance, psychoeducation, and choosing an interpersonal focus. Recently, several trials have been conducted to assess the efficacy of interpersonal psychotherapy for other mental health problems like addictions, eating and anxiety disorders. In this comprehensive meta analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues looked at all randomized controlled trials of interpersonal psychotherapy for any mental disorder. The review included 90 studies representing over 11,000 patients. Most of the studies targeted depression, but some studies used interpersonal psychotherapy to treat other disorders. The effect size of the difference between interpersonal psychotherapy and control conditions was moderately large (g = 0.60), indicating that interpersonal psychotherapy was efficacious. Interpersonal psychotherapy was as effective as other psychotherapies (g = 0.06), and as effective as antidepressant medications (g = -0.13). Combined interpersonal psychotherapy and medications was more effective than interpersonal psychotherapy alone, but the effect size of the difference was small (g = 0.24). The combination of monthly maintenance interpersonal therapy plus daily pharmacotherapy was significantly more effective in preventing relapse of depression compared to pharmacotherapy alone or interpersonal psychotherapy alone (odds ratios between 0.34 and 0.36 with confidence intervals not crossing 0). The effects of interpersonal psychotherapy for eating disorders was mixed largely because of the small number of studies and lower quality of studies. For anxiety disorders, interpersonal psychotherapy was as effective as other treatments (g = -0.16) and more effective than control conditions (g = 0.82).
Interpersonal psychotherapy showed moderate to large effects in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, and it was as effective as other interventions. Interpersonal psychotherapy may be effective for eating disorders as well, though the evidence is less clear. Patients and providers need to have more treatment options since no one treatment is effective for all patients. The relationship emphasis of interpersonal psychotherapy provides an important alternative to medications or cognitive behavioral therapy for some patients.
Direct Psychological Interventions Reduce Suicide and Suicide Attempts
Meerwijk, E.L., Parekh, A., Oquendo, M.A., Allen, I.E., Franck, L.S., & Lee, K.A. (2016). Direct versus indirect psychosocial and behavioural interventions to prevent suicide and suicide attempts: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry.
The World Health Organization reports that more than 800,000 people die of suicide per year around the world. However suicide prevention efforts over the past decade have fallen short of targets. In fact, the prevalence rates of suicide in the US have risen steadily since 2000 to about 1.3% of the population in 2014. Many who kill themselves have a mental disorder like depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, psychoses, or personality disorders. Best practices suggest that directly addressing suicidal thoughts and behaviors during treatment, rather than only addressing symptoms like depression and hopelessness, are most effective in reducing suicide. However, there are no meta analyses of randomized controlled trials that specifically assess the relative utility of direct versus indirect psychological interventions. In their meta analysis, Meerwijk and colleagues looked at psychosocial interventions aimed to prevent suicide or to treat mental illness associated with suicide. They included 31 studies representing over 13,000 participants. Interventions included cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), case management, social skills training, and supportive telephone calls. Depending on the target problem, the interventions either directly addressed suicidal behavior or they indirectly addressed suicidal behavior. Mean duration of treatment was over 11 months. Studies that looked at direct or indirect interventions were each compared to control groups that received some form of usual care in the community, or psychiatric management, or general practitioner care. Individuals who received usual care were 1.5 times more likely to die of or attempt suicide compared to those receiving direct or indirect psychological interventions. There was a 35% lower odds of suicide and attempts with direct interventions compared to usual care; and an 18% lower odds of suicide and attempts with indirect interventions compared to usual care. The difference between the effectiveness of direct versus indirect interventions was large (d = .77), suggesting that direct interventions were more effective than indirect interventions at reducing suicide and suicide attempts.
This is the largest meta analysis of its kind. Most direct interventions to prevent suicide and suicidal behaviors were based on CBT and DBT. Indirectly addressing suicide by focusing on depressive symptoms, anxiety, and hopelessness was somewhat effective compared to usual care. However, direct interventions that included talking about the patient’s suicidal thoughts and behaviors and how best to cope were most effective.
Effects of Antidepressants in Treating Anxiety Disorders Are Overestimated
Roest, A.M., de Jonge, P., Williames, G.D., de Vries, Y.A., Shoevers, R.A., & Turner, E.H. (2015). Reporting bias in clinical trials investigating second-generation antidepressants in the treatment of anxiety disorders: A report of 2 meta-analyses. JAMA Psychiatry, doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.15.
Previous research has shown that the effects of antidepressant medications for treating depression may be over estimated by as much as 35%. This occurs because of publication bias, which refers to the tendency among researchers and editors to prefer to publish positive findings, and also occurs due to the occasional practice of the pharmaceutical industry to suppress negative findings. In these meta analyses, Roest and colleagues assess publication bias in the research of antidepressant medications to treat anxiety disorders (i.e., generalized anxiety disorder [GAD], panic disorder [PD), social anxiety disorder [SAD], post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], and obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD]). Anxiety disorders are very common in the population, with an estimated year-prevalence of 12%. Second generation antidepressants (i.e., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are the primary pharmacologic treatment for anxiety disorders. Roest and colleagues were also interested in outcome reporting bias, which refers to mis-reporting non-positive findings as if they were positive findings, and spin which refers to interpreting non-positive results as beneficial findings. Positive findings refer to the pharmacological agent significantly outperforming a placebo, and non-positive findings refer to pharmacological agents not significantly outperforming a placebo. Pharmaceutical companies in the US must register any trial with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to starting the trial if the company wishes to apply for US marketing approval. And so, all medication trials and their findings, whether positive or non-positive must be listed in the FDA register. Despite being listed with the FDA, not all trials and findings get published in peer reviewed journals. This causes a problem for reviews and meta analyses that tend only to focus on published trials, and prescribing physicians tend only to read published trials and reviews. In their meta analyses Roest and colleagues compared findings from all FDA registered medication trials to those that were published in peer reviewed journal. Fifty seven trials were registered with the FDA but only 48 were published. Regarding publication bias, the proportion of studies with positive findings indicating efficacy of antidepressant medications in FDA trials was 72%, whereas the proportion of studies with positive findings in trials published in a journal was 96%. Overall, trials were 5 times more likely to be published if they were positive than if they were non-positive. Regarding outcome reporting bias, 3 of 16 trials that were non-positive in the FDA review were reported as positive in journal publications. Regarding spin, an additional 3 of the 16 non-positive trials interpreted non-positive results as if they were positive. Effect sizes in the FDA data was g = .33 indicating a small average effect size of the medications for anxiety disorders, but the effect size in published journals was g = .38 indicating a small to moderate effect. This represents a 15% over estimation of the effects of the antidepressant medications for anxiety disorders in the published literature.
The effects of antidepressant medications for anxiety disorders appear to be over estimated by 15% in the published literature. This inflation is not as large as the 35% over estimation in the published literature of the effects of antidepressant medications for depression. By contrast, as I reported in a previous PPRNet Blog, publication bias in psychotherapy trials is small and has little impact on the overall estimate of psychotherapy’s efficacy. Effect sizes for psychological interventions for anxiety disorders are moderate to large, g = .73. Combining medications and psychotherapy only modestly improves efficacy of treatments, and medications may interfere with the efficacy of psychological interventions.