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
Psychological Practitioner Workplace Well-Being
Summers, E.M., Morris, R.C., Bhutani, G.E., Rao, A.S., & Clarke, J.C. (2020). A survey of psychological practitioner workplace well-being. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. Online first publication: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2509
Burnout is a specific form of workplace psychological stress characterized by emotional exhaustion (loss of energy), depersonalization (cynicism towards patients), and lack of personal accomplishment (dissatisfaction). Research has shown higher than average levels of burnout in psychological practitioners. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom (UK) employs a large workforce of psychological practitioners (psychologists, counsellors, assistant psychologists, social workers, and others) to provide mental health care. In surveys among UK practitioners, 48% felt depressed, almost 50% felt like a failure, and 92% felt that their job was stressful. Unfortunately, many providers tend not to seek help when they feel burned out, anxious, or depressed. Summers and colleagues conducted a large-scale survey of psychological practitioners that provide mental health care in the UK’s NHS system. Over 1,600 practitioners responded to questionnaires about professional and personal well-being, and about workplace conditions. Results showed a high correlation (r = .61) between workplace well-being and general personal well-being, suggesting that experiences in the workplace affect experiences outside of the workplace and vice versa. Scores of professional and general well-being were significantly below the national average, indicating poorer well-being among psychological providers compared to the general population. There were no differences among genders, and among most ethnic groups, and higher pay was not associated with higher well-being. Noteworthy factors that correlated with poorer professional well-being included workplace harassment/bullying by managers, feeling depressed, and having a physical disability. Being on contract with the NHS, working only part-time for the NHS, or working in private practice were each related to somewhat better well-being.
There is ongoing concern about professional well-being and burnout among psychological practitioners as suggested by international surveys. Many NHS employees in the UK and mental health professionals around the world report high levels of burnout. Protective factors for psychological practitioners might include: having more control over one’s work, a supportive organizational culture, and taking care of one’s own psychological and physical health. Personal therapy, peer supervision, and consultation may be means by which therapists manage emerging dissatisfaction and depersonalization that may affect their work with patients and their own well-being.
Mentalizing May be a Protective Factor for Therapist’s Well-Being
Brugnera, A., Zarbo, C., Compare, A., Talia, A., Tasca, G.A., … & Lo Coco, G. (2020). Self-reported reflective functioning mediates the association between attachment insecurity and well-being among psychotherapists, Psychotherapy Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2020.1762946.
Therapeutic work can be emotionally demanding for the therapist and can affect levels of personal well-being. But little is known about what can foster greater well-being among psychotherapists. Therapist well-being affects their relationships and effectiveness with clients. In recent research, therapists who reported a more satisfying personal life tended to rate higher therapeutic alliances to their clients, and therapeutic alliance is associated with better client outcomes. Two factors that affect therapist well-being include attachment insecurity and mentalizing. Attachment insecurity can be characterized as attachment avoidance (over self-reliance and downregulation of emotions) and attachment anxiety (preoccupation with relationship loss and up-regulation of emotions). High attachment anxiety and avoidance are related to interpersonal problems, maladaptive emotion regulation, and lower self-esteem. Mentalizing is the capacity to understand one’s own and other’s behaviors in terms of mental states (intentions, feelings, thoughts, desires), and so it forms the basis for humans’ capacity for empathy, cooperation, and social learning. In this survey of 416 psychotherapists in Italy, Brugnera and colleagues asked therapists to complete questionnaires that assessed their own attachment insecurity, reflective functioning (or mentalizing), and subjective well-being. Not surprisingly, greater attachment insecurity and lower reflective functioning were associated with lower well-being among therapists. Using a statistical mediation model, their study tested a theory in which mentalizing explained why attachment insecurity led to lower well-being. They found a significant indirect effect of both attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety on well-being that was explained by reduced reflective functioning. That is, higher attachment insecurity led to lower capacity to mentalize, which in turn led to lower well-being.
Previous research showed a well-documented link between attachment insecurity and lower well-being among psychotherapists. This study is unique in that it helps to explain why this is the case. Even for those therapists who have higher attachment insecurity, a greater capacity to mentalize may buffer them from the negative impact on well-being. Recent research shows that novice therapists who receive specific training can improve their capacity to mentalize by: learning to identify their own reactions that distract them from understanding the client, distinguishing reactions they have that might provide useful information to understand the client, and taking a reflective stance to better understand the client based on their own personal reactions.
Psychotherapist Professional Self-Doubt in Using Video Therapy
Aajes-van Doorn, K., Bekes, V., & Prout, T. (2020). Grappling with our therapeutic relationship and professional self-doubt during COVID-19: Will we use video therapy again? Counselling Psychology Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/09515070.2020.1773404
Social restrictions caused by COVID-19 required many therapists to use video therapy to provide treatment to patients remotely. Video therapy offers many benefits like allowing for real-time (synchronous) interactions with patients who would otherwise not have access to mental health care. However most therapists have no training or experience in this modality, and previous surveys suggest that therapists believe video therapy to be less effective than face to face therapy. And some evidence suggests that the level of the working alliance in video therapy is lower than in face to face therapy. In this small survey of 141 therapists about video therapy, Aajes-van Doorn and colleagues examined psychotherapists’ view of the working alliance, therapists’ level of confidence in providing video therapy, and their intentions to use video therapy in the future. Psychotherapists were from the US, Canada, and Europe who treated adult patients in private practice. One third of therapists previously attended a webinar on how to use video conferencing for psychotherapy. The most frequently reported challenges for therapists concerned technical difficulties (61.0% of therapists), having a suitable space for therapy (48.2%), risk of patient or therapist getting distracted (41.1%), and difficulty feeling or expressing empathy to the client (20.6%). On a standardized scale, therapists responded feeling less connected to their patients during video therapy sessions, but they nevertheless reported a good therapeutic alliance compared to published norms. On two other measures, therapists providing video therapy felt more professional self-doubt, less competent, and less confident than levels reported in a previous study of therapists providing face to face therapy. Although therapists’ views of video therapy became more positive since the start of the pandemic, therapists still perceived video therapy to be less effective than face to face treatment. Therapists on average were undecided as to whether they would continue using video therapy in the future, and those who were more likely to continue using had prior experience with the modality.
Although this is a small survey, it does provide a window into therapists’ experiences with video therapy. The study highlights the added stressors upon therapists in conducting video therapy including higher self-doubt and lower competence and confidence. Also, although the therapeutic alliance in video therapy was good, it seemed to be lower than reported in previous studies of face to face therapy. Therapists may benefit from more clinical training and support in managing the various technical and clinical challenges of video therapy. With the permission of their patients and following appropriate ethical guidelines, therapists might consider video recording their sessions and reviewing these recordings in consultation/supervision to improve their work with clients in a virtual setting.
Predicting Boundary Violations Among Mental Health Professionals
Dickeson, E., Roberts, R., & Smout, M.F. (2020). Predicting boundary violation propensity among mental health professionals. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Online First Publication: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2465.
Boundaries of the therapeutic relationship define the role and limits of therapist behaviors, and the limits of their relationship with clients. Violations of therapy boundaries might include sexual contact, which by some estimates occurs in 0.5% to 8.6% of therapists. Other boundary violations might include a broader range of behaviors such as therapists initiating hugs, forming a social relationship with a client, flirting, and consuming alcohol with a client. A number of years ago, Gabbard developed a typology of practitioners who committed boundary violations that included: the predatory therapist, the masochistic therapist, and the lovesick therapist. Despite the widespread use of this typology, there was little research on its validity or utility. Dickeson and colleagues conducted a survey of 275 Australian practitioners (psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and social workers, 73% women) about their behaviors related to professional boundaries and also personality traits. The goal was to evaluate if therapist variables suggested by Gabbard were related to the likelihood of crossing a professional boundary. Over 30% of the therapists in their sample reported some kind of boundary violation with clients, with 0.7% indicating they had sex with a client. Male gender (r = .147–.255), experiential avoidance (r = .144–.230), narcissistic grandiosity (r = .334–.402), narcissistic vulnerability (r = .258–.331), and impulsivity (r = .196–.262) were the most consistent predictors of some propensity to commit a boundary violation among therapists. There was no evidence that age or working in a solo practice setting were related to propensity to professional boundary violations.
Gabbard’s typology for therapists who engage in boundary violations were supported to some extent. The predatory therapist type was supported by findings related to narcissistic grandiosity and impulsivity. Such therapists may seek personal gratification by exploiting clients. There was also some evidence for the masochistic therapist type as seen by significant correlations with narcissistic vulnerability and experiential avoidance. Such practitioners might extend themselves beyond the limits of professional conduct in a misguided belief that only they can help the client. There is a general consensus in the profession that boundary violations are detrimental to clients. This research suggests that therapists with narcissistic issues might be more likely to transgress professional boundaries. Personal therapy, close supervision, and ongoing professional consultation may be helpful for therapists who feel that they at risk of a professional boundary transgression.
Predicting Which Psychotherapists Will Adopt Telepsychology
Predicting Which Psychotherapists Will Adopt Telepsychology
Pierce, B. S., Perrin, P. B., & McDonald, S. D. (2020). Demographic, organizational, and clinical practice predictors of U.S. psychologists’ use of telepsychology. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 51(2), 184–193.
Even prior to COVID-19, psychologists and psychotherapists were examining the use of telepsychology (telephone delivered psychotherapy and assessment). The interest arose from efforts to increase accessibility to psychological services for clients in rural and remote areas, and also for those for whom travelling to an urban centre was a significant barrier due to disability. However, there are barriers to psychotherapists’ use of telepsychology caused by: differing state and provincial laws and requirements, limits to working across state and provincial jurisdictions, issues related to insurance reimbursement, and concern that telepsychology and video conferencing platforms may not meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or Personal Health Information Privacy and Access (PHIPA) requirements for confidentiality and privacy. In a previous study, close to 80% of psychologists felt that telepsychology could be effective, but 42% viewed telepsychology as less effective than face-to-face therapy, and 75% indicated that they would not likely refer to someone for telepsychology services. In this large survey of almost 1800 psychologists who practiced psychotherapy, Pierce and colleagues were interested in demographic, organizational, and clinical factors that predicted telepsychology-use by clinicians. The participants were 8.74 times more likely to use telepsychology if they worked in organizations that had policies supporting telepsychology-use compared to those who worked in organizations without such policies (p < .001). Nevertheless, psychologists in private practices were 2.86 times more likely to use telepsychology than those who worked in institutions. Also, psychologists who received training in telepsychology were 2.25 times more likely to use telepsychology than those who did not receive any training (p = .002). In terms of clinical practice areas, those who worked in sports performance, coaching, addictions, and parenting were more likely to use telepsychology. On the other hand, those who provided testing and evaluations were less likely to use telepsychology, likely because of practical limitations to psychometric testing online. Age and gender were not related to telepsychology use.
Psychologists and psychotherapists who want to increase their comfort and satisfaction in working with telepsychology should consider getting professional development training and continuing education. In one study, over two thirds or psychologists perceived that they did not have sufficient training to use telepsychology. Organizations who want to encourage telepsychology should invest in training and provide clear policy guidelines to support professionals. The notion that older clinicians would be less likely to use telepsychology was not born out by these findings.
A Brave New World of Training and Consultation in Psychotherapy
Imel, Z. E., Pace, B. T., Soma, C. S., Tanana, M., Hirsch, T., Gibson, J., Georgiou, P., Narayanan, S., & Atkins, D. C. (2019). Design feasibility of an automated, machine-learning based feedback system for motivational interviewing. Psychotherapy, 56(2), 318–328.
I do not mean to conjure up the image of a dystopian future, but I could not resist the pithy title for this blog. Ideally, psychotherapists in training or those who seek professional development would receive high quality accurate feedback about their behavior (e.g., about interpersonal skills, empathy, vocal tone, body language) and competence (e.g., regarding specific interventions) in real time. This would allow psychotherapists and trainees can make fine-tuned adjustments to their behaviors and interventions that match or complement the specific patient with which they are working. But, given the current technology, this is impossible. Instead psychotherapy training and feedback to practicing clinicians is slow, cumbersome, and imprecise. Current supervision and consultation practices rely on giving feedback based on the clinician’s verbal case report or, at best, based on viewing video recordings. There are systems that provide feedback on patient outcomes that may alert psychotherapists to something going amiss in for the patient. But such feedback occurs post-session, is based on patient self-report, and does not inform immediate in-session therapist behaviors. In this study, Imel and colleagues evaluated an initial proof of concept of an automated feedback system that generated quality metrics about specific therapist interventions and about therapist skills like empathy. They used computer technology based on natural language processing to take conversational data from video of psychotherapy sessions in order to answer questions like: “what did the therapist and patient talk about during the session?”, “how empathic was the therapist?”, and “how often did the therapist use reflections versus closed questions in the session?” The authors developed a machine learning tool to transcribe, code, and rapidly generate feedback to 21 experienced and novice therapists who recorded a 10-minute session with a standardized patient (a standardized patient is an actor who loosely follows a script). The machine learning technology was accurate at defining or coding a “closed question” by a therapist (e.g., a question with a yes/no answer; inter rater agreement with a human coder ICC = .80), but not as accurate at defining or coding a therapist empathic statement (inter rater agreement with a human coder ICC = .23). The system provided immediate feedback the therapists about their behaviors during the session using graphics and text (fidelity to specific interventions, counseling style, empathy, percent open/closed questions, percent reflections). All therapists rated the tool as “easy to use”, 86% strongly agreed that the feedback was representative of their performance, 90% agreed that if the tool was available, they would use it in their clinical practice.
Typically, professional consultation or supervision involves a consultant giving the therapist feedback based on imprecise descriptions of events in a therapy session that occurred at some point in the recent past. This method of training and consultation in psychotherapy has not changed much in the past 60 years. One key drawback of current methods of training and consultation is that they do not make use of real-time feedback to help therapist adjust behaviors to the specific patient or context. It is possible that in the near future with rapid advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning a therapist will be able to finish a session with a patient and receive an immediate feedback report about the previous hour. The feedback might include metrics on empathy, the percent of questions vs reflections, competence in specific interventions, among other personalize ratings. This future might also have novice trainees receive immediate real-time in-session feedback about behaviors of interest that need to be adjusted, or for which more training is necessary. For some, this might be a vision of a dystopian future, for others it may represent a way forward in which therapists achieve more refined skills and better patient outcomes.