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
Practice Research Networks
Castonguay, L., Barkham, M., Lutz, W., & McAleavey, A. (2013). Practice-oriented research: Approaches and applications. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 85-133). New York: Wiley.
In this chapter of the Handbook, Castonguay and colleagues (2013) review research methods and results associated with practice research networks (PRN). There is substantial evidence to show that psychotherapists often are not influenced by research findings when they prepare their case formulations and conduct interventions. As a result, clients may not be benefiting fully from nearly 60 years of research in psychotherapy methods and processes. There may be several explanations for this divide. Clinicians may perceive psychotherapy research, especially the emphasis on empirically supported treatments, as limited in its clinical relevance. Researchers may pay limited attention to concerns of clinicians when developing research strategies and treatment manuals. The end result is that clinicians feel disenfranchised from the research field, and therefore unaffected by the findings. Clinicians may pay more attention to psychotherapy research if they were more involved and “owned” the research and findings. One solution is to develop PRN based on a partnership of practitioners and researchers in which they collaborate on all aspects of a study; i.e., generation of ideas, implementation, and publication. Castonguay and colleagues (2013) report on the research generated by several PRNs in the U.S. The American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education’s PRN (APIRE-PRN) conducted several studies including: one study that found that compared to White patients, African Americans were less likely to be prescribed second generation antipsychotic medications, which are considered to be the treatment of choice by psychiatrists; and a second study that reported that presence of a personality disorder, low Global Assessment of Functioning scores, and seeing a psychiatrist at a discounted fee was associated with treatment non-compliance. The Pennsylvania Psychological Association PRN (PPA-PRN) conducted several studies, including one study that found that better patient outcomes were associated with: higher expectancy for change among clients, lower client interpersonal problems, greater number of therapy sessions, and lower therapist case load. A second PPA-PRN study that I reported in my August 2013 Blog found that therapist efforts to foster client awareness of their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors were perceived as particularly helpful by both clients and therapists. Finally, the National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network (CTN) conducted several studies with the intent of bringing drug abuse researchers into the real world and creating opportunities for clinicians to participate in research. This network completed over 50 trials. For example, in one trial, researchers found evidence for better retention, treatment engagement, and family functioning for brief strategic family therapy compared to treatment as usual.
A qualitative study reported by Castonguay and colleagues (2010) indicated that clinician involvement in PRN research fostered new learning as well as a sense of community with other professionals with shared goals. Therapists also indicated that their clients perceived their research participation as intrinsically meaningful and an opportunity to contribute to scientific knowledge. However, participating in a PRN had its challenges as well. Clinicians had to remember detailed procedures, at times practitioners had to depart from their clinical routine, and clinicians had to find time to complete questionnaires and other procedures. Castonguay and colleagues (2010) recommended that practice based research procedures in a PRN remain simple and clear, that clinicians have to have ready access to research staff for consultations, and that incentives have to be built in for clients and clinicians to participate. Studies in which research goals and clinical goals are indistinguishable are most likely to succeed.
Indirect Exposure to Trauma Can Lead to Job Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Mental Health Providers.
Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C.C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological Services, 11, 75-86.
The concept of job burnout was originally developed to document negative consequences of work related exposure to stressful situations experienced by various professionals such as police officers, paramedics, emergency room clinicians, etc. Job burnout can be defined as emotional exhaustion and disengagement. However, recent research on mental health providers has extended the focus beyond job burnout caused by direct exposure, to investigate the consequences of indirect exposure through contact with people who have experienced traumatic events, exposure to graphic trauma content reported by the survivor, or exposure to people’s cruelty to one another. These are sometimes referred to as secondary exposure or indirect exposure to trauma. Professionals indirectly exposed to trauma through their work could experience consequences or symptoms that have been conceptualized as secondary post-traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization, and compassion fatigue, which can collectively be called secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS may include three clusters of symptoms: intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic material, avoidance of trauma triggers and emotions, and increased physical arousal. Compassion fatigue was defined as a substantial reduction in the mental health providers’ empathic capacity. Cieslak and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta analysis to assess the strength of associations between job burnout and other psychosocial consequences of work-related indirect exposure to trauma in professionals working with trauma survivors. They reviewed 41 studies that included 8,256 workers. The association between secondary traumatic stress (STS) and job burnout in professionals was significant and large. Workers were more likely to experience compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion compared to PTSD-like symptoms and depersonalization, however, even the association with PTSD-like symptoms and depersonalization was moderate and significant. Both women and men were susceptible to STS, but the effect was larger in women.
Burnout and other consequences of indirect exposure to trauma are likely to be high among mental health professionals. Burnout will affect professionals’ well being and quality of life, and will diminish their effectiveness with patients through reduced empathy and increased disengagement. Mental health professionals who are exposed to secondary trauma should be aware of the potential for negative personal consequences, and assess their own level of emotional exhaustion, empathic capacity, and engagement. Mental health professionals should seek help if they re-experience the events, engage in avoidance of trauma triggers and emotions, and experience heightened arousal. Taking care of oneself through consultation with trusted colleagues, change in work contexts, social supports, and personal therapy could help to forestall compassion fatigue and burnout. Educational programs to improve self awareness and mindful communication may reduce burnout in mental health professionals.
Patients with High Levels of Resistance Respond Better to Less Directive Psychotherapy.
Beutler, L.E., Harwood, T.M., Michelson, A., Song, X., & Holman, J. (2011). Resistance/Reactance level. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67, 133-142.
Patient resistance to psychotherapy is a persistent and perplexing problem. Resistance can be defined as patient behavior that is directly or indirectly contrary to therapist recommendations or to the health of the patient. However, the label “resistance” implies that the problem lies entirely within the patient, i.e., that the patient is the problem. Beutler and colleagues (2011) argue that it is more accurate to define the problem as “reactance”, which refers to the relational or co-constructed nature of psychotherapy. The notion of reactance (instead of resistance) suggests that the therapist also plays a role in the resistance, since the therapist is also responsible to create a context within which highly ambivalent clients do or do not thrive. Failure to thrive could be viewed as a poor fit between patient and therapy. Using social psychological theory, Beutler and colleagues conceptualized reactance as a state of mind aroused in the patients when he or she perceives their freedom to be limited by the therapy. A therapist may elicit resistant behavior from a patient by assuming more control of the patient’s behavior within and outside of the therapy sessions than is tolerable, by using confrontational techniques, and by creating and failing to repair alliance ruptures. Beutler and colleagues argued that therapist directiveness was a key factor in determining reactance in the therapy. Therapist directiveness refers to the extent to which a therapist dictates the pace and direction of therapy. Beutler and colleagues conducted a meta analysis to assess if therapist directiveness was associated with poorer outcome in patients who were more resistant in therapy. The meta analysis included 12 studies with 1,103 patients. They found that higher patient resistance was related to poorer outcomes, and the effect was moderate. The interaction between therapist directiveness and patient level of resistance directly affected outcomes, and this effect was significant and large. That is, greater therapist directiveness with patients who were more resistant resulted in poorer outcomes. Conversely, patients who were low in resistance responded well to more directive therapy.
Therapists should view some manifestations of client resistance as a signal that they are using ineffective methods. A therapist’s response to resistant states in a patient requires: acknowledgement and reflection of the patient’s concerns; discussion of the therapeutic relationship; and renegotiation of the therapeutic contract regarding goals and therapeutic roles. These therapist responses are designed to provide the patient with a greater sense of control over the process. High reactance indicates that a treatment should: de-emphasize therapist authority and guidance, employ tasks that are designed to provide the patient with control and self-direction, and de-emphasize the use of rigid homework assignments. As Beutler and colleagues indicate, resistance is best characterized as a problem of the therapy relationship (not of the patient) and as such, becomes a problem for the therapist and patient to solve. The skilled therapist can find a way to stimulate change and reduce a patient’s fear of losing control or freedom.
Research on Training and Continuing Education in Psychotherapy
Hill, C. & Knox, S. (2013). Training and supervision in psychotherapy. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 775-811). New York: Wiley.
Research on training and supervision in psychotherapy has proven to be very difficult to conduct. Part of the difficulty with the research is that the process under study is highly complex with many interacting variables. Therapists and supervisors have different personal qualities, patients have different levels of problems, training programs differ, supervision styles differ, and therapists and supervisors differ in terms of experience, case load, knowledge, and training background. Nevertheless there exists a moderately large literature on training, supervision, and continuing education in psychotherapy. However, the findings so far have been mixed and somewhat disappointing. In their chapter in the Handbook, Hill and Knox (2013) tackle the difficult task of summarizing this literature and giving some coherence to the findings. Is training and supervision effective? Hill and Knox tentatively conclude that the answer is “yes”. They provide some evidence that novice therapists can be trained in helping skills, that trainees improve over the course of training, that supervision enhances trainees’ awareness of self and others and improves their autonomy, and that experienced therapists, including those in the community can be trained to use manuals. Despite these positive findings, the existing literature also provided some sobering results. These less supportive findings include: that nonsupervised therapists did not differ from supervised therapists on therapy alliance and patient outcomes, that supervision sometimes has negative effects on trainees and their patients, that therapist experience may not be related to better patient outcomes, and that some highly facilitative non-professionals can be just as effective as trained therapists. What contributes to making training and supervision effective? The research in psychotherapy training and medical education is clear on this question: hands-on experience is key to learning a practice-based skill such as psychotherapy. Practice is the most helpful component of skills training. In medical education research, systematic reviews have shown that traditional didactic learning (i.e., classroom style lectures) had no significant impact on physician behaviors or patient outcomes. However, interactive programs (especially supervised rehearsal of skills) did have a significant positive impact on physician behaviors and patient outcomes. Furthermore, psychotherapy supervisees reported that supervisors who were open, empathic, and who provided supportive nurturance in the context of a good supervisory alliance were most helpful to trainees to develop and improve their clinical skills.
Practicing clinicians who want to get the most out of continuing education should look for opportunities in which they get hands-on experience and continuous supervision in providing the psychotherapy intervention. Other than acquiring a limited amount of knowledge, didactic training alone without practice will likely have little impact on practice. The research also indicates that supervisors and trainees who are able to develop a good supervisory alliance, and supervisors who are open and empathic are more likely to result in improved psychotherapy skills in trainees and better outcomes in patients. Binder and Henry (2010) describe the importance of “deliberate practice” in psychotherapy training and continuing education that includes: performing a task at an appropriate level of difficulty, receiving immediate and informative feedback from a supervisor, and having the opportunity to repeat the skill and correct errors.
Medication Versus Psychotherapy for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders
Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole SL, Andersson G, Beekman AT, Reynolds III CF (2013). The efficacy of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy in treating depressive and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons. World Psychiatry, 12, 137-148.
Both psychotherapy and antidepressant medications are efficacious treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. However, there remains some debate about whether they are equally effective for all disorders, and whether psychotherapy and antidepressants are equally efficacious for each disorder. As I indicated in the March 2014 blog, antidepressant medications alone have become the first line of treatment for many who have depressive and anxiety disorders. However, a recent meta analysis concluded that monotherapy with medication alone was not optimal treatment for most patients, and that adding psychotherapy results in clinically meaningful improvement for most patients. Cuijpers and colleagues (2013) reported on an overall meta analysis of the studies in which psychotherapy and medication were directly compared to each other in adults with depressive disorders, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They combined the effects of 67 studies including 5,993 patients. Forty studies included depressive disorders and 27 included anxiety disorders. Most therapies (49 of 78) were characterized as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the others included interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy, and non-directive counselling. Most patients were seen in individual treatment for 12 to 18 sessions. The most commonly prescribed medications were selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). The overall mean effect size for the difference between psychotherapy and medications was almost zero, indicating no significant difference. Regarding specific disorders and treatments, pharmacotherapy was more effective for dysthymia, but the effect size was small. By contrast, psychotherapy was more effective for OCD, and the effect size was moderately large. SSRI had similar effects to psychotherapy, but non-directive counselling was less effective than pharmacotherapy, though the effect was small.
This meta analysis by Cuijpers and colleagues found that the differences between psychotherapy and antidepressant medications were non-existent for major depression, panic disorder, and SAD. Although antidepressants were more effective for dysthymia, the difference was small and disappeared when study quality was controlled, and so this finding is not reliable. Psychotherapy was clearly more effective for OCD even after adjusting for study quality and other factors. This is the first meta analysis to show the relative superiority of psychotherapy for OCD, and suggests psychotherapy as a first line treatment. The meta analysis only looked at post treatment results and not at longer term effects. There is evidence from other research showing that antidepressants do not have strong effects after patients stop taking them, whereas psychotherapy’s effects tend to be sustained in the longer term.
Organizational Instability May be Related to Premature Termination from Psychotherapy
Werbarta, A., Andersson, H., & Sandell, R. (2014). Dropout revisited: Patient- and therapist-initiated discontinuation of psychotherapy as a function of organizational instability. Psychotherapy Research, Online first publication: DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2014.883087.
Premature termination of psychotherapy in mental health care is a problem both in terms of patient outcomes and in terms of financial consequences for providers. Drop out rates for psychotherapy in general range from 20% to 75% with an average of 50%. In my April, 2013 blog I reported on a meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) in which they reported an overall drop out rate of 20% in randomized control trials; but the average drop out rate could be up to 38% in randomized trials depending on how premature termination was defined (failure to complete a treatment, attending less than half of sessions, stopping attending, or therapist judgment). Drop outs are commonly believed to represent therapeutic failures. Much of the research to predict psychotherapy non-completion has focused on patient variables like age, gender, symptom severity and others. This implicitly puts the responsibility for dropping out on the patient. Swift and Greenberg (2012) found that on average young, male, single patients with a personality disorder diagnosis were more likely to drop out. Therapist variables are less frequently studied, and the only therapist variable related to lower drop out was greater experience. Therapeutic orientations were not related to more or less dropping out. Very few studies have examined work conditions or organizational variables as predictors of premature terminations. Werbata and colleagues (2014) conducted a large study in 8 clinics in Sweden with 750 patients treated by 140 therapists. The clinics were three psychiatry outpatient units, three specialized psychotherapy units, one young adult psychotherapy unit, and one primary care setting that provided psychotherapy. Drop out was defined as unilateral termination in which either the patient or therapist discontinued the treatment. Of the patients who started therapy, 66% completed treatment and 34% terminated prematurely (19.7% of patients terminated the therapy, 14.3% were terminated by therapists). On average, clients were in their mid-30s, and most had a psychiatric diagnosis. The most common therapy was psychodynamic (59.1%) followed by integrative (19.0%), and cognitive behavioral (17.1%). The authors looked at patient variables (e.g., symptom severity), therapist variables (e.g., age, gender, etc.), and organizational stability. Ratings of organizational stability of the clinic were based on: the transparency of the clinic structure, the suitability of the organization to provide psychotherapy, the clarity of rules and decision-making policies regarding providing psychotherapy, and the clinic’s financial stability. Client variables such as: older age, greater level of psychopathology, and tendency to act out were moderately predictive of dropping out. Receiving treatment at a less stable clinic made it almost four times more likely for patients to initiate dropping out than to remain in therapy. Organizational instability was more important than patient factors in accounting for premature termination.
Drop outs were almost four times higher in unstable clinics. Instability in organizations can create anxiety, cynicism, and disengagement in staff, which may have consequences for patient care. Financial and political problems within a clinic or institution, internal conflict related to treatment policy or disruptive administrative routines may affect the therapeutic relationship, which is generally more intimate and more important than in other health care contexts. Organizational instability can result in shortened or interrupted treatment, change in therapists, or therapists who are not fully engaged due to clinic stresses. For patients, these terminations may resemble earlier life losses or neglect that may have precipitated their need for therapy in the first place.