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
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.
Nonimproved Patients View Their Psychotherapy
Werbart, A., Von Below, C., Brun, J., & Gunnarsdottir, H. (2015). “Spinning one’s wheels”: Nonimproved patients view their psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 25, 546-564.
The rate of patients who experience no change after receiving psychotherapy is about 35% to 40% in clinical trials. Further, about 5% to 10% get worse after treatment. So, in spite of the fact that psychotherapy is effective in general, a sizeable minority of patients do not benefit. There is also evidence that patients’ perception of therapy differs greatly from their therapists’. Therapists are often inaccurate in identifying or predicting patient outcomes, and patients’ judgements tend to better correspond with treatment outcomes. In this study, Werbart and colleagues evaluated outcomes of 134 patients who had elevated symptoms. The average age of patients was 22.4 years (range 18 – 26), so many were young adults. Almost all received a diagnosis ranging from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or personality disorders. The predominant treatment was psychoanalytic. Of the 134 patients, many experienced large improvements by the end of treatment. However, 20 patients remained clinically distressed and did not improve or deteriorated after receiving psychotherapy. The authors interviewed these 20 patients at termination and at three-year follow-up using a semi-structured interview. The interview asked patients for their experiences of therapy. The researchers transcribed the interviews and coded the transcripts using a known method of qualitative analysis called “grounded theory”. Three main themes related to poor outcomes were identified by these patients. (1) The therapy or therapist – in which: therapists were perceived by patients as passive or reticent, patients felt distant from the therapist, and patients did not understand the therapy method. (2) Outcomes of therapy – in which: the patient expected more from therapy, and symptoms and emotional problems remained in the “impaired” range at the end of treatment. (3) The impact of life circumstances – referring to negative impacts of events outside of the therapy.
This is a small but unique study that interviewed patients who did not benefit from psychotherapy about their experiences of the treatment and therapist. Nonimproved patients described their therapist generally as too passive, distant, and uninvolved in the work of therapy. These patients described difficulty understanding the therapeutic method and the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The findings highlight the importance of the therapeutic alliance. To have a good alliance, patients and therapists have to agree on the tasks of therapy, agree on the goals that the therapy should achieve for the patient, and there should be a mutual liking or bond between patient and therapist. Those patients whose therapists pay attention to and foster a good alliance are more likely to experience good outcomes.
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.
Does Frequency of Sessions Affect Patient Outcomes?
Erekson, D.M., Lambert, M.J., & Egget, D.L. (2015). The relationship between session frequency and psychotherapy outcome in a naturalistic setting. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
The dose-response model of psychotherapy suggests that a single session is like a “dose” of therapy, and that each session adds to a cumulative response by the client. For example, research indicates that between 13 and 18 sessions are required for 50% of patients to improve significantly, but with diminishing returns for clients after 18 sessions. In this very large study in a naturalistic setting, Erekson and colleagues studied the question of the effects of the “dose” or quantity of therapy a little differently. What if the spacing or frequency of sessions rather than the total number of sessions was important to patient outcomes? That is, if psychotherapy reinforces adaptive behaviors, then less learning might occur if time between sessions increases. With greater time between sessions clients may miss timely support from a therapist, and the therapeutic alliance may not be as solid. Erekson examined the impact of session frequency in a very large sample of university students (N = 21,488) seen by therapists (N = 303) for individual therapy lasting about 50 minutes per session. Clients typically received between 6 and 21 weeks of therapy. The data were collected at a counselling center over a 17-year period. Therapist orientations included CBT, psychodynamic, existential, and integrative. Patient outcomes were measured after each session with a reliable measure that allows one to evaluate if a client recovered from symptoms, reliably improved but did not recover, or reliably deteriorated. The authors found that compared to less frequent sessions (approximately every 2 weeks), more frequent sessions (approximately weekly) was associated with faster improvement and faster recovery. The statistical models predicted that 50% of individuals being seen weekly would reliably improve in 8 sessions, whereas 50% those seen every 2 weeks would reliably improve in 12 sessions. That is, clients seen every two weeks required 50% more sessions to achieve the same level of improvement as clients seen every week.
Clients that are seen weekly may have a better therapeutic experience and develop a better therapeutic alliance with their therapists, which may in turn result in faster improvements. More frequent meetings may suggest to clients that their needs are important to the therapist. Institutions may have the opinion that lower session frequency is a way of saving resources, but in the end patients seen less frequently may require more therapy to achieve outcomes at the same rate as patients seen more frequently. Higher frequency of sessions may increase the efficiency of the psychotherapy and possibly reduce the amount of resources invested by the institution to improve patient mental health outcomes.
Does Duration of Therapy Affect Patient Outcomes?
Stiles, W.B., Barkham, M., & Wheeler, S. (2015). Duration of psychological therapy: Relation to recover and improvement rates in UK routine practice. British Journal of Psychiatry, 207, 115-122.
In this very large study from the UK National Health Service (NHS), Stiles and colleagues assessed whether more therapy is better. That is, do people continue to get better with more sessions or do patients reach a certain level of improvement and terminate therapy regardless of number of sessions. The “dose-effect model” of psychotherapy suggests that patients continue to improve with more sessions, although the rate of improvement slows down after 18 sessions. However, large naturalistic studies from the UK health system show that patients have similar rates of recovery regardless of the number of sessions they attend (i.e., up to 20 sessions). These findings suggest that patient improvement may follow a good-enough or “responsive regulation model” of improvement, in which patients responsively regulate the number of sessions that they need. This could have implications for policies regarding how many sessions are prescribed to patients. In this study, Stiles and colleagues drew data from the NHS data base of over 26,000 adult patients who were seen by 1,450 therapists. These were patients who provided enough reliable outcome data, who attended 40 or fewer sessions, and who had a planned ending. Many patients had multiple problems including anxiety, depression, bereavement, and trauma and abuse. Patients who were selected for the study had initial symptom scores in the clinical range. The most common therapy approaches included integrative, psychodynamic, CBT, and supportive. Patient “recovery” was defined as no longer scoring in the clinical range at the end of therapy. Patient “improvement” was defined as a reliable drop in symptom scores on a psychometric measure. Patients received an average of 8.3 sessions, 60% recovered, and an additional 19% improved but did not recover. Rates of reliable improvement were negatively correlated (r = -.58) with number of sessions, and the effect was large. That is, patients who stayed in therapy longer had lower rates of recovery. These patients were more symptomatic at the outset.
The results of this very large naturalistic study suggest that therapists and clients should regularly monitor improvement and adjust the treatment duration based on whether clients improve to a satisfactory level. The authors refer to this as “responsive regulation” of treatment duration. In practice, this means that therapists and clients end treatment when patients have improved to a “good-enough” level, which is likely balanced against costs and alternatives. These findings should encourage therapists and agencies to shift their attention away from prescribing a pre-specified length of treatment at the beginning of therapy towards evaluating on an ongoing basis what constitutes good-enough gains for each client.
Clients Change at Different Rates
Owen, J., Adelson, J., Budge, S., Wampold, B., Kopta, M., Minami, T., & Miller, S. (2015). Trajectories of change in psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(9), 817–827.
Knowing the rate, or the trajectory, or the shape of client change across sessions of therapy can inform our understanding of how patients change, our policies of how many sessions to provide clients, and our clinical decisions if clients are no longer improving. The most popular models of client change across sessions include the “dose-effect model” and the “good-enough level model”. The dose-effect suggests that the more therapy patients receive the more they improve but, at a certain point, more sessions result in diminishing returns. In the August, 2013 PPRNet blog, I reviewed a chapter suggesting that 17% to 50% partially improve after about 7 sessions, and 50% patients fully recover after receiving about 21 sessions of therapy. Dose effect models might encourage some agencies to provide only the average number of sessions so that most patients will improve. The good-enough level model, on the other hand suggests that patients stay in therapy for varying lengths of time, and the number of sessions is determined by the point at which they feel better. In this study by Owen and colleagues, the authors take a different approach by looking at the patterns or trajectories of change that represent how and at what rate patients improve over time. In this very large study, they gathered session-by-session outcome data for over 10,000 clients seen at 47 treatment centres by over 500 different therapists. Client presenting problems and therapy orientations varied. Owen and colleagues identified 3 classes of patient change trajectories by using advanced statistical modeling of general distress outcomes across 5 to 25 sessions of therapy (average = 9.4 sessions). The largest class, representing 75% of clients, typified those who rapidly improved to session 5 and whose improvement plateaued to session 11, after which they improved again. This was called the “early and late change” class. The second largest class of patients, representing almost 20% of the sample, showed consistent linear change across the sessions. This was called the “slow and steady change” class. The third class of clients, representing about 5% of the sample, showed an initial decline in functioning up to session 5, followed by a steady improvement up to session 9, and then a plateau in improvement after session 9. This was called the “got worse before they got better” class. This last group of clients had the most severe symptoms at the outset.
This study indicates that one size does not fit all when it comes to how rapidly and in what manner patients change. “Early and late change” patients improve early on and then show another round of improvement later on in therapy. “Slow and steady” change patients show mild but consistent improvement across sessions of therapy. And those whose symptoms are more severe at the outset may “get worse before they get better”. This means that it may not be feasible to set an average fixed number of sessions for all patients, but rather therapists and agencies must rely on indices of reliable or good-enough change to determine optimal therapy length for each client. For example, “early and late change” patients may be working on different issues at different stages of therapy. Whereas clients who “show slow and steady” change may need to be in therapy longer before they realize sufficient improvement. For those patients with more severe symptoms who “get worse before they get better”, the therapy initially may be difficult but may ultimately induce change in the long run. In this case, therapists may need to provide enough of the current therapeutic approach before considering a change in the course of therapy.
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