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
How Much Therapy is Necessary?
Barkham, M. & Lambert, M.J. (2021). The efficacy and effectiveness of psychological therapies. In Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 5.
For decades now, researchers have been trying to address the question of how many sessions of therapy is optimal for the average patient. In this part of the chapter, Barkham and Lambert review some of the research related to the question: how much therapy is necessary? Early research noted that it took about 13 sessions for 50% of patients to achieve clinically significant change, and 50 sessions was necessary for 75% of patients to achieve significant change. In other words, the number of sessions need to be doubled for another 25% of patients to improve. (Of note, half of patients did not improve after 13 sessions). Such research suggests a dose-response relationship, such that more therapy sessions result in more patients getting better – but the rate of return slows considerably with more sessions. The problem with this approach to estimating how many sessions are necessary is that it assumes that all patients improve at a consistent rate across sessions, but that may not be the case. Other researchers suggest that patient rate of change is individual, and that when a patient achieves a good enough level of change, they will terminate therapy. The research area is complicated by several factors. First, much of the research was conducted in university counselling centers with therapists in training, student patients, and bounded by the semester system. So, by definition, the therapy is time-limited and patients may be homogenous with regard to symptom severity. Second, some of the data in meta-analyses come from randomized controlled trials that by necessity represent brief treatments. Third, different modes of delivery in different countries appear to have an impact on how many sessions are delivered and what kind of therapy is offered. Fourth, patient severity at baseline may be related to longer treatments and slower rates of change.
Although the dose-response research has been used in some settings to arbitrarily select treatment length offered to all patients, the results of this research may not be reliable. Predetermined fixed treatment lengths are likely not appropriate for patients. For example, greater patient severity at the start of treatment, and comorbidity and complexity of problems will likely result in such patients requiring a higher number of treatment sessions. A one-size-fits-all approach to determining how many sessions are offered to patients will likely negatively affect the most vulnerable of patients.
How Much Psychotherapy is Necessary?
Lutz, W., de Jong, K., Rubel, J.A., & Delgadillo, J. (2021). Measuring, predicting, and tracking change in psychotherapy. In M. Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 4.
The question of how many psychotherapy sessions are necessary to achieve good patient outcomes, or how frequently sessions should occur has been on the minds of practitioners and researchers for over a century. In this part of the chapter, Lutz and colleagues review some of the research related to how many sessions of psychotherapy is necessary to achieve positive outcomes for patients. A meta-analysis of 70 randomized controlled trials (RCT) of psychotherapy did not demonstrate any correlation between the number of sessions a patient receives and their outcomes. Other research indicates that receiving psychotherapy twice a week is more effective than receiving treatment once a week for depression. The findings of these two lines of research suggest that treatment length may not matter as much as treatment frequency. However, RCTs of psychotherapy tend to test only time limited therapies and they may not reflect exactly what happens in the real world with diverse patients who have complex problems. Perhaps the most relevant research for clinicians may be what is called the dose-response studies. These are studies that indicate how many sessions it takes for patients to get better regardless of treatment length. The dose-response research showed that 50% of patients starting treatment in the dysfunctional range required 21 sessions to achieve clinically significant change. That also means that half of patients did not change meaningfully with 21 sessions of therapy. More than 35 sessions were necessary for 70% of patients to achieve clinically meaningful change (and still, 30% of patients did not benefit). It is likely that some patients get better with a few sessions, but as severity or complexity of problems increase so does the number of required sessions. To add to the complexity, optimal duration of therapy varies according to practice settings. For example, for CBT in controlled studies the average patient needed about 17 sessions to get better, while 35 sessions of CBT was necessary in real world settings for the average patient to improve (again, that means that 50% did not yet improve).
The findings from this line of research of the optimal number of sessions suggest that it is difficult to translate findings from controlled trials to real world practice. Most RCTs limit therapy to a brief number of sessions whether patients get better or not. Some patients do improve with a few sessions but over half of patients require more than 21 sessions to achieve clinically meaningful change, and about 30% of patients require more than 35 sessions. There is some evidence that more sessions per week leads to better outcomes as well.
Causes and Consequences of Burnout in Mental Health Professionals
Yang, Y., & Hayes, J. A. (2020). Causes and consequences of burnout among mental health professionals: A practice-oriented review of recent empirical literature. Psychotherapy, 57(3), 426–436.
Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion (feeling overextended and depleted), depersonalization (negative and cynical attitudes, and distance in relationships with clients and work), and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment (negative self-evaluation). Recent meta-analyses show that between 20% and 40% of mental health professionals are experiencing burnout. And so, this is a pervasive problem that could affect therapists’ physical and mental health as well as their clients’ outcomes. In this narrative review, Yang and Hayes looked at 44 studies published since 2009 to understand the individual predictors and consequences of burnout among psychotherapists across all professions. Based on the research, they categorized predictors of therapist burnout into three areas: work factors, psychotherapist factors, and client factors. Work factors that the research associated with psychotherapist burnout included: job control (less control over the nature and quantity of work and on work conditions) work setting (working in an institutional setting, organizational inefficiency), job demands (higher workload and hours), and support (little support from colleagues and supervisors). Psychotherapist factors that research indicated are related to clinician burnout included: therapist history of mental health problems and trauma, countertransference (an emotional reaction to clients affected by one’s own personal dynamics), psychological distress, and low professional self-efficacy (low professional self-confidence). Client factors related to therapist burnout included having a caseload of working with many clients who have complex difficulties. The research also indicated the effects of burnout on psychotherapists. Burnout adversely affects both physical (gastrointestinal problems, sleep deprivation, back pain) and psychological (low mood, anxiety, secondary trauma) well-being of therapists. The findings also indicated that burn-out increased job dissatisfaction and turnover in the workplace. The effect of therapist burn-out on clients included reduced client engagement in the therapy process, and reduced client mental health outcomes. Poorer client engagement and outcomes are likely caused by therapist exhaustion, reduced energy, and self-protective withdrawal.
Psychotherapists would do well to monitor continually their level of burnout and to identify strategies to mitigate its effects. Looking for emotional support from colleagues, supervisors, friends, and family are good coping strategies. Therapists should also be mindful not to overwork, seek psychotherapy for oneself, and maintain appropriate boundaries with clients. Peer supervision and consultation may go a long way to achieving support, and to working through and managing problematic countertransference that inevitably arises in ones work as a psychotherapist.
Psychotherapy at a Distance
Markowitz, J.C., Milrod B., Heckman, T.G., Bergman, M., Amsalem, D., Zalman, H., Ballas, T., Neria, Y. (2020). Psychotherapy at a distance. American Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20050557.
Teletherapy was once seen as an adjunctive therapy mainly reserved for patients who lived in remote locations and who could not otherwise access psychotherapy. Now, due to public health restrictions related to COVID-19, teletherapy has become standard care. Conscientious psychotherapists who want to practice based on the best available evidence have looked to the research for some guidance. Previous PPRNet Blogs (see the May, June, and July 2020 Blogs at www.pprnet.ca) have highlighted some of the research related to teletherapy and videoconferencing psychotherapy. In this meta-review, Markowitz and colleagues in part assess the quality of some of these findings, that is – how good is this research. Quality of research often hinges on a number of factors: is the sample size large enough to make solid conclusions, are the methods used appropriate and robust (like randomized controlled trials), is there a sufficient quantity of research that can be summarized, and are patient samples in the studies similar to those typically see in clinical practice. There are thousands of studies of face to face psychotherapy for depression, but by comparison the number of studies of teletherapy are relatively sparse. Many studies of teletherapy are not randomized controlled trials in the typical sense, but rather they are a hodgepodge of studies of different interventions, patients, settings, and outcomes. Nevertheless, the outcomes are generally encouraging in terms of the efficacy of teletherapy. In a recent meta analysis, effects of videoconferenced psychotherapy appear to be equivalent to face to face therapy, but there were only 11 studies in all, only 5 of the studies were considered high quality, and 4 of the high quality studies were with military veterans with PTSD in the Veterans Administration System in the US. Regarding specific orientations, Markowitz and colleagues reported three rigorous trials showing CBT or interpersonal psychotherapy reduced depressive symptoms. There are six randomized trials of group therapy by videoconferencing or telephone, but most are of low quality and often specifically focused on patients with HIV.
Videoconferenced and telephone delivered psychotherapy are likely here to stay in some form, even after the COVID-19 pandemic. Teletherapy greatly expands access for some, though some patients including homeless, poorer, or the elderly individuals still may not have adequate access. The research evidence for the efficacy of remote therapy is encouraging, but also problematic. Most research trials are too small to draw meaningful conclusions, and few studies focus on therapeutic factors. Anecdotal reports suggest that those who are socially anxious or avoidant may prefer remote care, however it is also possible that teletherapy may exacerbate problematic avoidance behaviors among some patients. At the moment, the research lags far behind the rapid transition to remote care that has occurred in the past months.
Videotherapy and the Therapeutic Alliance
Simpson, S., Richardson, L., Pietrabissa, G., Castelnuovo, G., Reid, C. (2020). Videotherapy and therapeutic alliance in the age of COVID-19. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2521
The therapeutic alliance is one of the most robust predictors of patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The alliance refers to the patient’s and therapist’s agreement on the goals of therapy (what the patient wants for an outcome), the tasks of therapy (what to do in therapy to achieve these goals), and the relational bond between the patient and therapist. Despite the importance of the therapeutic alliance, psychotherapists tend to rate it lower in videoconferenced psychotherapy compared to face to face therapy. That is, psychotherapists are skeptical that one can develop and maintain the same quality of alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy compared to face to face therapy. In this review, Simpson and colleagues evaluate the research on the alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy. The authors argue that videoconference psychotherapy provides greater access for some patients, and also creates therapeutic opportunities that are not possible in face to face therapy. For example, those with PTSD, agoraphobia, social avoidance, and severe anxiety may find engaging in videoconferenced psychotherapy to be easier. Younger individuals who feel more at home with social interactions on a video screen may also engage better with videoconferenced psychotherapy. Simpson and colleagues reviewed 24 studies that examined the therapeutic alliance in the context of video therapy. There was a wide range of technologies and clinical groups, thus making meaningful comparisons difficult. Generally, both clients and therapists rated the alliance highly. There is some evidence that for a few patients, like those concerned with privacy and stigma, videoconferenced psychotherapy may be less threatening. However, it must be noted that most of these studies were surveys, analogue studies not including real therapeutic contexts, or single case reports. Currently, there appears to be no high quality randomized controlled trial comparing videoconferenced versus face to face therapy on the quality of the alliance.
As is the case with treatment efficacy studies, high quality trials looking at the therapeutic alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy lag far behind practice. As a result, the research provides little guidance to therapists. Small studies and anecdotal reports suggest that the alliance may be as good in videoconferenced psychotherapy as in face to face therapy, and that some patient, especially those with high levels of avoidance and anxiety, may find videotherapy to be less threatening. Given the ubiquitous nature of technology, and the likelihood that videoconferenced psychotherapy will continue well into the future, it is important that researchers turn to examining what works in videotherapy and for whom.
What are Patients’ Experiences of Psychological Therapy?
McPherson, S., Wicks, C. & Tercelli, I. (2020). Patient experiences of psychological therapy for depression: A qualitative metasynthesis. BMC Psychiatry, 20, 313. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02682-1
Many times, researchers choose what to study in psychotherapy trials without really consulting patients who are receiving the care. For example, researchers are often primarily interested in how well psychotherapies reduce symptoms in patients with a particular disorder, or researchers might be interested in certain constructs that might affect patient outcomes (e.g., therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy). But are these the things that patients are really interested in when they seek psychological therapy? Although many treatment guidelines emphasize patient choice and experience, none of them take research of patient experiences into account to develop the guidelines. When presented with findings from randomized controlled trials of psychotherapy, patients reported that the research was of limited value in helping them make an informed choice about therapy. In this metasynthesis of qualitative studies, McPherson and colleagues aimed to bring together qualitative evidence concerning adult patients’ experiences of psychotherapy for depression. Qualitative research typically involves interviewing patients and systematically categorizing their responses into meaningful themes. The authors found 38 qualitative studies involving patient interviews of their experiences in receiving psychotherapy for depression. Several key themes emerged from the analysis. First, many people who receive remote therapy primarily from a computer program felt dissatisfied because of the lack of or limited contact with a real person therapist. Most patients did not feel connected to the computerized therapy and so their motivation waned quickly. Second, patients found psychological models and techniques to be less relevant than their need for help with their immediate family or social problems that likely triggered their depressive symptoms. This points to the primary importance of quality of life and of the social and cultural context for patients, despite that many psychological therapies tend to focus on symptoms almost exclusively. Third, this metasynthesis pointed to reports of negative effects of therapy, in which some therapeutic techniques like body scans induced flashbacks in some patients. Other patients had mixed or sometimes negative feelings about requirements for homework, which sometimes felt overwhelming, culturally out of step, or irrelevant.
This metasynthesis of patient experiences in psychotherapy point to the importance of asking patients about their goals, expectations, and preferences in therapy. The findings highlight the importance of some common factors across therapies (e.g., therapist warmth and humanness, collaborative agreement on tasks and goals, and patient factors like culture and individual differences). Patients prefer human connection with therapists, and they tend to place less value on techniques of therapy. Patients also tend to value outcomes related to quality of life, social connection, and they want therapy consistent with their cultural values. Patients should be fully involved in a collaborative discussion about which therapy you offer them, how you provide the therapy, and what they want to achieve in therapy.