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
Costs and Benefits of Funding Psychological Services as Part of Medicare in Canada
Vasiliadis, H-M., Dezetter, A., Latimer, A., Drapeau, M., & Lesage, A. (2017). Assessing costs and benefits of insuring psychological services as part of Medicare for depression in Canada. Psychiatric Services in Advance.
About 20% of the population have a mental disorder like depression during their lifetime, and depression is associated with a number of negative health outcomes like mortality, health system costs, and low quality of life. Most patients prefer psychotherapy over medications, but there are significant barriers to accessing psychotherapy, with cost as the biggest barrier. Recently in the United Kingdom, a cost-benefit analysis was used to argue that the development of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) program would pay for itself in five years. The IAPT is a system of reimbursing psychological therapies through the publicly funded National Health Service in the UK. Similar models are in place in France and Australia. Vasiliadis and colleagues also conducted an economic study in Canada to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of providing psychological services as part of Canada`s Medicare system. They did so by using economic modeling of incidences of depression among patients over a 40-year period, and assessing the relative costs and outcomes of increasing publicly funded access to psychotherapy compared with the status quo. They used known incidence rates for depression in the adult population (2.9%), and estimated health service use from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CHS), and estimated costs (hospitalizations, GP visits, specialist visits, seeing a psychologist or counsellor, antidepressant prescriptions) from provincial health billing manuals. They also used the existing research literature to estimate the average effects of psychotherapy for depression on various outcomes (quality of life, suicide and attempts, health service use, etc.). Adequate mental health services for depression was defined as either 8 sessions of psychotherapy or use of antidepressants. They found that 36.7% of Canadians with depression did not use mental health services, and only 67.4% of those who did access treatment received adequate care. In the economic models that were tested, increasing access to care resulted in a projected decrease in depression, suicidality, health system and societal costs. Increasing access would cost an additional $123 million per year, but savings to society in terms of reduced health system costs and increased productivity was $246 million per year. In other words, for every $1 spent by Medicare on psychotherapy, Canada would recoup $2 in reduced costs and increased productivity.
The findings of this Canadian study echo those of similar economic studies done in the UK, France, and Australia. Increasing access to psychotherapy for depression through Medicare is more effective and less costly than the status quo. In fact this Canadian study may underestimate potential gains because it did not account for the increased use of the health system by depressed people with chronic medical conditions. Currently, public expenditures for mental health and addictions in Canada account for only 7.2% of the total health budget. An increase of 0.07% of the total health budget to cover psychological services would result in health care cost savings, improved mental health, reductions in disability, and increased productivity among Canadians.
Effectiveness of Psychodynamic Couple Therapy in a Naturalistic Setting
Hewison, D., Casey, P., & Mwamba, N. (2016). The effectiveness of couple therapy: Clinical outcomes in a naturalistic United Kingdom setting. Psychotherapy, 53, 377-387.
Current randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of couple therapy indicate that about 60% to 70% of couples improve to some degree, and that about 35% to 50% are no longer distressed by the end of therapy. But RCTs have been criticized for being somewhat artificial because their design is based on how pharmacological treatments are tested. Psychotherapy may be more complex than pharmacotherapy in its implementation, and compared to pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy relies more heavily on the qualities of the therapist and therapeutic relationship in order to achieve good outcomes. In an RCT, individuals often have to have a specific disorder to be included in the study, and those with co-morbid disorders may be excluded. This may limit what the findings have to say about real world applications of a particular treatment. Further, therapists in RCTs may receive unusual levels of supervision and support that is seldom seen in regular clinical practice. In this large study of over 435 couples, Hewison and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of a psychodynamically-oriented couple therapy as practiced in a large not-for-profit centre that provides psychological treatment (i.e., the Tavistock clinic in the United Kingdom). All participants received couple treatment and none were randomly assigned to a control group. The couple therapy focused on insight and emotional connection and expression within the context of a therapeutic relationship. The couple relationship rather than the individual partners were the object of the therapy. The unconscious meaning of couple communication was often discussed, and therapist countertransference was seen as a source of information about the couple. Most couples in the study identified as White (77.0%), heterosexual (93.9%), and married or living in a civil partnership (58.4%). More than half of the couples were in the relationship for over 5 years and had children. Therapists were qualified couple therapists or Masters level trainees, had a mean age of 50 (range: 26 – 71), tended to be White women (60%), and were all trained at the clinic. The average number of sessions that a couple attended was 23.3 (SD = 23.5), but with a wide range (2 to 150 sessions) as might be typical in a clinical setting. Overall, individual clients reported a large significant decrease in individual psychological distress (d = -1.04), and a moderate significant decrease in marital distress (d = -0.58). Half of individuals showed a reliable reduction in their individual distress, and over a quarter of couples reported a reliable decline in their couple distress.
This is the largest study of couple therapy in a naturalistic setting. The psychodynamic couple therapy was effective in reducing individual distress for almost half of the participants although reliable change in couple distress was lower. The results of this field trial indicate that couple therapy that is offered in a functioning real-world clinic setting produces results similar to what is seen in highly controlled randomized trials.
Efficacy of Psychotherapies for Borderline Personality Disorder
Cristea, I.A., Gentili, C., Cotet, C.D., Palomba, D., Barbui, C., & Cuijpers, P. (2017). Efficacy of psychotherapies for borderline personality disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.4287.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a debilitating disorder characterized by: severe instability of emotions, relationships, and behaviors. More than 75% of those with BPD have engaged in deliberate self-harm, and suicide rates are between 8% and 10%. BPD is the most common of the personality disorders with a high level of functional impairment. Several psychotherapies have been developed to treat BPD. Most notably, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychodynamic treatments like mentalization-based and transference-focused psychotherapy. This meta-analysis by Cristea and colleagues examined the efficacy of psychotherapy for BPD. Studies included in the meta-analysis (33 trials of 2256 clients) were randomized controlled trials in which a psychotherapy was compared to a control condition for adults with BPD. For all borderline-relevant outcomes (combined borderline symptoms, self-harm, parasuicidal and suicidal behaviors) yielded a significant but small effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions at post treatment (g = 0.35; 95%CI: 0.20, 0.50). At follow up, there was again a significant effect of the psychotherapies over control conditions with a moderate effect (g = 0.45; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.75). When the different treatment types were looked at separately, DBT (g = 0.34; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.53) and psychodynamic approaches (g = 0.41; 95% CI: 0.12, 0.69) were more effective than control interventions, while CBT (g = 0.24; 95% CI: −0.01, 0.49) was not. The authors also reported a significant amount of publication bias, suggesting that published results may be positively biased in favor of the psychotherapies.
The results indicate a small effect of psychotherapies at post-treatment and a moderate effect at follow-up for the treatment of BPD. DBT and psychodynamic treatment were significantly more effective than control conditions, whereas CBT was not. However, all effects were likely inflated by publication bias, indicating a tendency to publish only positive findings. Nevertheless, various independent psychotherapies demonstrated efficacy for symptoms of self harm, suicide, and general psychopathology in BPD.
Creating a Climate for Improving Therapist Expertise
Goldberg, S.B., Babins-Wagner, R., Rousmaniere, T., Berzins, S., Hoyt, W.T., Whipple, J.L., Miller, S.D., & Wampold, B.E. (2016). Creating a climate for therapist improvement: A case study of an agency focused on outcomes and deliberate practice. Psychotherapy, 53, 367-375.
There is a lot of evidence that psychotherapy is effective – a result that has been demonstrated in randomized trials and in naturalistic setting. As I have noted numerous times in this Blog, psychotherapy is as effective as medications but without the side effects and with longer lasting results. However, there is room for improvement, especially in the effectiveness of individual therapists. Health care organizations are increasingly interested in quality improvement, which refers to efforts to make changes in practice that will lead to better patient outcomes, better care, and better professional development. One approach to quality improvement in medicine has been through audit and feedback – which involves measuring a clinician’s practice, comparing the clinician’s outcomes to professional standards, and giving the clinician feedback. In psychotherapy, the analogue is routine outcome monitoring in which patient progress is monitored with standardized measures throughout therapy, and therapists receive ongoing feedback on each patient’s progress relative to the average patient with that disorder. We know that therapists tend not to improve in terms of patient outcomes with experience alone, and some authors argue that one of the things that therapists are missing is good quality information about their clients’ progress. What would happen if an agency or organization decided to make it a priority to provide therapists with quality information about client progress? This paper by Goldberg and colleagues is a case study in which an agency deliberately created a culture of quality feedback and professional development to improve therapist expertise, therapist intentional practice, and client outcomes. The case study is of a community mental health agency in Alberta. Over 5,000 clients were seen by 153 therapists over a 7 year period (2008 to 2015) as part of the study. Clients received at least three sessions of therapy (mean = 6.53 sessions, SD = 5.02), and had a range of disorders typically seen in a mental health clinic. Therapists included 49.7% licensed or provisionally licensed professionals at the masters or doctoral level from different professions (e.g., social work, psychology, pastoral counselling), and 50.3% practicum students. Throughout the 7 years of the study, therapists saw an average of 33.52 clients (SD = 26.24). In 2008, the agency required the staff to collect outcome measures of all clients before each session (although patient scores were not tied to staff performance evaluations). This policy change caused a 40% turnover in clinical staff within 4 months (clearly a large minority of therapists did not want to participate in this new clinic directive)! These staff positions were replaced and staffing was stable after that point. In addition to requiring clinicians to provide measures on all patients (although patients could decline to participate), the agency provided monthly clinical consultations with an external consultant as a means of professional development. During these consultation, clinicians were encouraged to bring cases that were not progressing well in order to get feedback on their most challenging patients. Discussions were organized around therapeutic alliance, i.e., clarifying goals and preferences, and ways of facilitating engagement. The overall results showed a significant decline in distress among patients over the course of treatment. Of most interest was that therapists on average showed a significant improvement in their outcomes over time. That is, contrary to research showing that therapists do not improve over time when left to their own devices, therapists in this agency that received feedback and professional education around difficult cases did improve significantly.
The findings of this study indicate that psychotherapists can improve over time if they receive quality information about client progress, and if they receive professional development that is tied to this information (i.e., concrete suggestions for ways of working with difficult clients). In other words, it is possible for therapist to develop expertise over time under some conditions. A significant challenge in this case study was that a number of therapists left the agency due to the quality improvement efforts. Some therapists are sensitive to or feel threatened by outcome monitoring. However, therapists who remained or who were subsequently hired by the agency showed a reliable increase in their expertise and client outcomes as a result of deliberate intentional practice, quality feedback about client progress, and concrete professional development focused on the therapeutic alliance.
The Importance of Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health Treatment
Greenberg, R.P. (2016). The rebirth of psychosocial importance in a drug-filled world. American Psychologist, 71, 781-791.
In this thoughtful piece, Greenberg reviews the research on psychosocial factors that affect mental health treatment outcomes – including for medications and in psychotherapy. There has been an important shift in the last few decades to view mental disorders, including depression, as biologically based. For example, surveys indicate that the public’s belief in biological causes of mental illness rose from 77% to 88% during a 10 year period. During the same period the belief in the primacy of biological treatment for mental disorders rose from 48% to 60%. Further, 20% of women and 15% of men in the US are currently taking antidepressant medications. Some of these trends are due to direct to consumer marketing of medications by the pharmaceutical industry, which saw a 300% increase in sales in antidepressants. Some of these trends are also due to Federal agencies like the National Institute of Mental Health that vigorously pursued an agenda of biological research. But what is the evidence for a purely biological view of mental health? Greenberg notes that the evidence is poor. For example, no one has been able to demonstrate that a chemical imbalance actually exists to explain depressive symptoms – which undermines the reason for using medications to treat depression. Further, research on the efficacy of antidepressant medications shows that they perform only slightly better than a placebo pill, prompting a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine to declare that this difference is unlikely to be clinically meaningful. The placebo effect is essentially a psychosocial effect. It refers to: the patient’s experience of a caring relationship with a credible professional, and the patient’s expectations and hopes of getting better. Placebo is a very real phenomenon that also has an impact on purely medical interventions like surgeries. In psychotherapy trials, relational/contextual factors like therapeutic alliance, expectations, therapist empathy, and countertransference likely account for more of the client’s outcomes than the particular therapeutic technique that is used. In both psychotherapy and medication treatments for depression, it appears that the more patients perceived their doctors as caring, empathic, open, and sincere, the greater their symptom improvement. There is also good evidence that psychotherapy is as effective and antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, and that antidepressants are slightly superior for chronic depression. However, even the latter should be interpreted carefully and within the context that patients prefer psychotherapy, their adherence to medications is poorer, side effects are worse for medications, and drop out rates are lower for psychotherapy.
Patients benefit from antidepressant medications, but perhaps not exactly for the reasons that they are told. Psychosocial factors likely account for a large proportion of the effects of many medically-based interventions for mental disorders. Psychosocial factors are actively used in many psychotherapies, and therapists’ qualities like their ability to establish an alliance, empathy, and professionalism account for a moderate to large proportion of why patients get better.
Has Increased Availability of Treatment Reduced the Prevalence of Mental Disorders?
Jorm, A.F., Patten, S.B., Brugha, T.S., & Mojtabai, R. (2017). Has increased provision of treatment reduced the prevalence of common mental disorders? Review of the evidence from four countries. World Psychiatry, 16, 90-99.
Mental disorders are a major source of disability. However, many individuals remain untreated, such that 36% to 50% of serious cases in industrialized countries went untreated in the previous year. In 2001 the World Health Organization argued for making treatment more accessible and to train more mental health professionals. In this wide-ranging review, Jorm and colleagues look at data from the U.K, the U.S., Canada, and Australia to assess if in fact treatment provision has increased over time, and whether this increase was associated with declines in the prevalence of common mental disorders. In all of the countries surveyed, antidepressant use among those with mental disorders (mainly anxiety and depressive disorders) increased dramatically from 1990 to 2011, such that their use rose by 300% or more during that period. The use of psychotherapy increased in Australia by about 46% among those with a diagnosable disorder. While the rates of psychotherapy-use remained the same in the U.K., they declined dramatically in the U.S. from 71.1% in the late 1980s to 43.1% in 2007 (no data was available from Canada). At the same time however, the prevalence of mental disorders has been increasing or remaining the same in all of the four countries. For example, in England the prevalence of common mental disorders among women went from 18.1% in 1993 to 18.9% in 2007. The authors then speculated as to why the dramatic increase in the use of antidepressants was not followed by a decrease in diagnosed mental disorders. They were able to rule out a number of possibilities like increased reporting of mental illnesses, or an increase in risk factors in the communities involved. The authors did suggest however that antidepressant medications may not be prescribed as intended by primary health care providers. For example, in Australia, only 50% of people prescribed antidepressants receive them as recommended in clinical guidelines. In an Alberta, Canada study, 67.2% of those who reported taking an antidepressant had no active mood or anxiety disorder at the time of the survey. Among those with major depression, only 14.3% reported receiving psychotherapy.
This large review highlights some findings that are already well known: that antidepressant use is dramatically on the rise, and that psychotherapy use is declining slightly over time. This may be due to the quick and easy availability of antidepressant medications, the direct to consumer advertising done by the pharmaceutical industry in some countries, and to a possible cultural need for easy fixes to complex problems. What is new in this review, is that the rise in available antidepressant medications appears not to have made a dent in the rate of mental illness in four industrialized countries.