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
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.
The Process of Psychodynamic Therapy
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content and sections of the book can be read on Google Books.
Crits-Christoph, P., Connolly Gibbons, M.B., & Mukherjee, D. (2013). Psychotherapy process-outcome research. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 298-340). New York: Wiley.
This month I consider the section in Crits-Christoph and colleagues’ chapter on the process of psychodynamic therapy (PDT). There are a number of PDT models, but they each share some fundamental aspects of treatment or purported mechanisms. One is insight or self understanding, in which patients learn about themselves and their relationships through interventions like interpretations. Self understanding is expected to help patients reduce symptoms by increasing adaptive responses in their important relationships. Transference interpretations may help patients understand their patterns within the therapy relationship, address or change these patterns, and generalize the changes to relationships outside of therapy. Another mechanism might be changes in defensive functioning. Defense mechanisms may be expressions and means of coping with unconscious conflict, needs, and motivations. Change in defensive functioning from less adaptive (e.g. acting out, passive aggression) to more adaptive (e.g., altruism, self observation) may be necessary to achieve improvement in symptoms. Crits-Christoph and colleagues addressed four questions in their review of research on the process of PDT. (1) Are the uses of PDT techniques like transference interpretations related to treatment outcomes? A number of studies have associated the use of PDT interventions and outcomes, and the average effect size is moderate. In general, transference interpretations were associated with better treatment outcomes. However the findings for transference interpretations are complicated. For example, the use of too many transference interpretations may not be therapeutic and may result in poorer outcomes. A small number of studies looked at the quality or accuracy of transference interpretations and found a moderate relationship between accurate interpretations and good outcomes. Most of these studies did not control for previous improvement in outcomes, so an alternate explanation might be that patients whose symptoms improve facilitate therapists to provide more effective transference interpretations. (2) Is patient self-understanding or insight associated with positive outcomes in PDT? Crits-Christoph and colleagues concluded from their review that changes in self-understanding is an important part of the therapeutic process of PDT. The relationship between insight and outcomes were not evident in CBT or medication interventions, thus suggesting that self-understanding is a specific mechanism of PDT. (3) Is change in defensive functioning related to outcomes in PDT? Only four studies have looked at this question. The studies suggest that improved defensive functioning is related to good outcomes especially for those with more severe problems. However, it remains unclear whether change in defensive functioning causes change in symptoms or the other way around. (4) Is therapist competence in PDT related to treatment outcomes? There is some evidence that competence and adherence in delivering PDT were related to good patient outcomes. Some research also showed that competence and adherence to PDT protocols preceded or caused good outcomes.
There is good evidence that transference interpretations are related to outcomes, but therapists need to use these judiciously. The research suggests that too many transference interpretations in those with lower levels of functioning, or inaccurate interpretations in general, can reduce outcomes or be related to poorer outcomes. There is also good evidence that patient self understanding of relationship patterns will result in positive outcomes. Self understanding or insight may be a specific mechanism by which PDT works that sets it apart from CBT and the effects of medications. The research also indicates some evidence for the positive effects of changes in defensive functioning, but it is not clear whether change in defenses is a cause of or caused by positive symptom outcomes. Therapist competence and adherence in delivering PDT is also related to good patient outcomes. This highlights the need for training and supervision in evidence based PDT interventions.
Barriers to Conducting CBT for Social Phobia
McAleavey, A.A., Castonguay, L.G., & Goldfried, M.R. (2014). Clinical experiences in conducting cognitive-behavioral therapy for social phobia. Behavior Therapy, 45, 21-35.
It might come as a surprise to some that social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder, with a lifetime prevalence of about 12%. Symptoms include negative self-view, fear of embarrassment or criticism, and fear and/or avoidance of social situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for social phobia with effects as large as pharmacotherapies. Despite this, there are several potential barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia in clinical practice. CBT involves exposure to feared situations (in vivo or simulated), identifying and altering maladaptive thoughts during exposure, producing testable hypotheses, and identifying cognitive errors. CBT is not uniformly effective for all patients with social phobia, exposure techniques are linked to dropping out and failure to initiate treatment, and there can be an increase in missed sessions and non-completion of homework related to avoidance. In this study, McAleavy and colleagues surveyed 276 psychotherapists who provided CBT for social phobia to assess problems or barriers clinicians encountered when applying CBT in practice. Possible barriers listed in the survey were derived from extensive interviews with experts who developed and researched CBT interventions for anxiety disorders. Survey respondents were mostly Ph.D. level clinical psychologists (59%), women (61%), who practiced in outpatient clinics or private practice, and had on average 12 years of post-degree experience. Many therapists reported using behavioral interventions, including developing a fear/avoidance hierarchy, in-session exposures, focusing on behavior in social situations, and specifically focusing on behavioral avoidance. Most also used cognitive homework (i.e., interventions focused on exploring or altering attributions or cognitions). The most frequent therapist endorsed barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia included: patient symptoms (i.e., severity, chronicity, and poor social skills); other patient characteristics (i.e., resistance to directiveness of treatment, inability to work independently between sessions, avoidant personality disorder, limited premorbid functioning, poor interpersonal skills, depressed mood); patient expectations (i.e., that therapist will do all the work; pessimism regarding therapy); patient specific beliefs (i.e., belief that fears are realistic, or that social anxiety is part of their personality); patient motivation (i.e., premature termination, attribution that gains are due to medications); and patient social system (i.e., social system endorses dependency, social isolation). A minority of CBT therapists endorsed a weak therapeutic alliance or aspects of the CBT intervention itself as posing a barrier.
CBT therapists identified a number of barriers, mainly patient related, that might impede the implementation of CBT for social phobia. Given these barriers the authors suggested that therapists: (1) consider more intense, longer, or more specific treatments for more severe cases; (2) incorporate assessment of patient severity to guide decisions; (3) consider tailoring the level of treatment directiveness based on patient characteristics – i.e., more resistant patients may require a less directive approach and more control over the type and pace of interventions; (4) prepare patients on what to expect in the treatment before therapy begins; (5) find a balance between validating/accepting patients’ problematic beliefs that their fears might be realistic with encouragement to change; (6) add motivational interviewing for patients who are less motivated; (6) complete a thorough functional analysis of patients’ social systems at the start of therapy. McAleavey and colleagues noted that while therapeutic alliance difficulties was an infrequently endorsed barrier by therapists, such difficulties remain clinically important, especially in light of findings that indicate that negative reactions to patients are under-reported by therapists. Developing and maintaining a good alliance remains a key aspect of CBT for panic disorder.
Adding Psychotherapy to Medications for Depression and Anxiety
Cuijpers, P., Sijbrandij, E.M., Koole, S.L., Andersson, G., Beekman, A.T. & Reynolds, C.F. (2014). Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis. World Psychiatry, 13(1), 56-67.
Anxiety and depressive disorders occur at a high rate and are very burdensome to those who suffer. These disorders are also related to high levels of health care costs, loss of productivity, and lower quality of life. Both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions are effective, yet in recent years there has been a trend for patients to receive psychotropic interventions alone rather than psychotherapy. Cuijpers and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta analysis comparing pharmacotherapy alone versus pharmacotherapy combined with psychotherapy. Studies in the meta analysis included a variety of disorders such as depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. (Meta analysis is an important tool to review and combine the effects of interventions across a large number of studies. Rather than simply counting studies with positive, neutral, or negative findings, meta analysis allows one to calculate an effect size, average the effect sizes across different studies, and look at predictors or moderators of the effects. Aggregated effect sizes in a meta analysis are much more reliable [i.e., dependable] than any single study result). Cuijpers and colleagues’ meta analysis included 52 studies with 3,623 patients. Most studies tested cognitive behavioral therapy, though a large minority also included interpersonal psychotherapy and psychodynamic therapy. Most studies used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), though some included tricyclic antidepressants and others. There was a moderately large overall difference between pharmacotherapy versus combined pharmacotherapy plus psychotherapy for major depression, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That is, adding psychotherapy resulted in a clinically meaningful improvement above and beyond pharmacotherapy alone. There were no significant differences found for type of antidepressant medication or for type of psychotherapy. Eleven studies included a placebo control condition to which medication alone vs medication plus psychotherapy was compared. The effect of combining medication and psychotherapy was twice as large as the effect of medication alone when compared to a placebo control condition. Nineteen studies followed patients after treatment (from 3 to 24 months post treatment), and the superiority of combined treatment versus medication alone remained strong and significant well into follow up.
There has been a trend over the past decade to provide medication as a first line of treatment for depression and anxiety disorders. However, the results of this meta analysis indicate that monotherapy with medication alone is not optimal treatment for most patients, and that psychotherapy results in additive clinically meaningful improvement for most patients. The additive effects of psychotherapy are especially pronounced for major depression, panic disorder, and OCD.