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
Individual versus Group Psychotherapy
Burlingame, G.M., Seebeck, J.D., Janis, R.A., Whitcomb, K.E., Barkowski, S., Rosendahl, J., & Strauss, B. (2016). Outcome differences between individual and group formats when identical and nonidentical treatments, patients, and doses are compared: A 25-year meta-analytic perspective. Psychotherapy, 53, 446-461.
With increasing service demands being put on mental health systems, clinicians and administrators are looking to more efficient ways of providing care to more patients. One option is group therapy in which more patients can be treated with fewer resources. However, are groups as effective as individual therapy for mental disorders? This meta-analysis by Burlingame and colleagues addresses this question by examining 67 studies in which group and individual therapy were directly compared within the same study. The majority of studies included adults with anxiety, mood, or substance use disorders, with some studies focusing on medical conditions, eating or personality disorders. Two-thirds of studies were of cognitive-behavioral therapy, but other treatment types like interpersonal, psychodynamic, and supportive therapy were also tested. Groups were defined as having at least 3 patients per group. The average number of sessions for group and individual therapy were equivalent (group M = 14.67, SD = 8.75; individual 15.94, SD = 14.37)), and as expected group therapy sessions were longer in minutes (M = 100.39, SD = 30.87) than individual therapy sessions (M = 56.55, SD = 14.37) given the multi-person demands of groups. Groups were primarily closed to new members after starting, they tended to have homogenous membership based on diagnosis, and groups tended to be co-led by 2 therapists. Individual and group therapy were not significantly different for all disorders and outcomes at post-treatment (g = -0.03; 95%CI = -0.10, 0.04), short-term follow-up (g = 0.01; 95% CI = -0.13, 0.11), and long-term follow-up (g = 0.00; 95% CI= -0.12, 0.13). Drop out rates for group therapy (17.28%) and individual therapy (14.96%) were not significantly different (OR = 1.10; 95% CI = 0.90, 1.33), and patients were likely to accept group therapy (88.76%) as often as they accepted individual therapy (84.83%) when one or the other was offered. Pre- to post-treatment effect sizes were moderately large for both interventions (group: g = 0.60, 95% CI = 0.48, 0.72; individual: g = 0.53, 95% CI = 0.42, 0.65). Patients presenting with depression, substance us, anxiety, or eating disorders had the highest level of improvement.
When identical treatments, patients, and doses are compared, individual and group therapy resulted in equivalent outcomes across of a variety of disorders. This is good news for clinicians and agencies looking to maximize resources to treat more patients. However, running a group is more complex than providing individual therapy. Finding a sufficient number of patients to start a group, assessing and preparing each patient prior to starting a group, writing a note per patient per session, and managing attrition is logistically more challenging. Further, most therapists are not formally trained to provide group interventions and so they may find the task of managing a substantially larger amount of within-session group process information to be complex. Finally, as Burlingame and colleagues indicate, there are institutional considerations so that group programs require a milieu that supports group referrals and flexibility in scheduling. Nevertheless the findings of this meta analysis indicate the potential for group therapy to provide efficacious treatments for mental disorders.
Ways In Which Research Can Be Biased
Leichsenring, F. Abbass, A., Hilsenroth, M.J., Leweke, F., Luyten, P., ….Steinert, C. (2016). Bias in research: Risk factors for non-replicability in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy research. Psychological Medicine, doi:10.1017/S003329171600324X.
An important feature of research is that it should be replicable. That is, another researcher should be able to obtain the same finding as the original study as a pre-requisite for the validity of the conclusions. A recent estimate for cognitive and social psychology research is that only about 36% to 47% of studies are successfully replicated. Another study showed similar low replicability of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy research. Results that are neither replicable nor valid can lead to improper treatment recommendations. Leichsenring and colleagues review several research biases that affect the replicability of findings in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy research, and they discuss how to limit these biases. Psychotherapy trials often involve an established treatment approach that is pit against a comparison treatment in a head to head contest. Below I list some of the biases detailed by Leichsenring and colleagues that may affect the validity of psychotherapy trials. First, in psychotherapy trials a large proportion of the differences in outcomes between a treatment and a comparison may be due to the researcher’s allegiance to a particular therapy modality. This may be expressed unconsciously by selecting outcome measures that are more sensitive to the effects of one type of treatment versus another. For example the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) is particularly sensitive to changes in cognitions, whereas the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) is particularly sensitive to physiological side effects related to antidepressant medications. One way to deal with researcher allegiance effects is to include researchers and therapists who have an allegiance to both of the treatments that are under study. Second, the integrity of the comparison treatment may be impaired. That is the comparison treatment may not be carried out exactly as originally intended. This could occur in pharmacological trials in which doses do not match clinical practice, or in psychotherapy trials in which therapists in the comparison treatment may be told to ignore key symptoms. Properly training and supervising therapists and not constraining them by the study protocol is important to avoid this type of bias. Third, some studies make a lot of noise about small effects that are statistically significant. When two bona-fide psychotherapies are compared the differences tend to be small – this is a common finding. Small differences, even if statistically significant, often turn out to be random, unimportant, and of little clinical significance. Concurrent with this problem is that sometimes researchers will use multiple outcome measures, find significant differences only with some, and report these as meaningful. This refers to selectively emphasizing a small number of findings among a larger number of analyses, which are likely due to chance variation and therefore not replicable.
What should a clinician do when reading a comparative outcome study of psychotherapy? There are some technical red flags for research bias that require specialized knowledge (e.g., small sample sizes and their effect on reliability, over-interpreting statistical significance in the context of small effects, and non-registration of a trial). But there are a few less technical things to look for. First, I suggest that clinicians focus primarily on meta-analyses and not on single research studies. Although not perfect, meta-analyses review a whole body of literature, and are more likely to give a reliable estimate of the state of the research in a particular area. Second, clinicians should ask some important questions about the particular study: (a) are the results unusual (i.e., when comparing 2 bona-fide treatments, is one “significantly” better; or are the results spectacular); (b) does the research team represent only one treatment orientation; and (c) do the researchers reduce the integrity of the comparison treatment in some way (e.g., by not training and supervising therapists properly, by unreasonably limiting what therapists can do)?
Effects of Combining Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy on Quality of Life in Depression
Kamenov, K., Twomey, C., Cabello, M., Prina, A.M., & Ayuso-Mateos, J.L. (2016). The efficacy of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and their combination on functioning and quality of life in depression: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, doi: 10.1017/S0033291716002774.
Both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy are efficacious for reducing symptoms of depression. Some studies suggest that functioning (i.e., the ability to engage in work, school, and social activities) and quality of life (i.e., satisfaction with these activities and perception of one’s health) are just as important to depressed patients as is reducing their symptoms. In fact, many patients place greater priority on improving functioning compared to reducing symptoms. In this meta analysis, Kamenov and colleagues assess the relative efficacy of psychotherapy vs pharmacotherapy in improving functioning and quality of life. They also evaluate if combining psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy is efficacious relative to either treatment alone. The meta analysis included k = 153 studies of over 29,000 participants. Psychotherapies often included CBT and interpersonal psychotherapy. Compared to control groups (k = 37 to 52) both psychotherapy (g = 0.35, 95% CI = 0.24, 0.46) and medications (g = 0.27, 95% CI = 0.21, 0.32) significantly improved functioning. Also, compared to controls both psychotherapy (g = 0.35, 95% CI = 0.26, 0.44) and medications (g = 0.31, 95% CI = 0.24, 0.38) significantly improved quality of life in depressed participants. In studies that directly compared psychotherapy and medications, there were no significant differences when it came to improving functioning, but there was a small significant advantage to psychotherapy over medication for improving quality of life (g = 0.21, 95% CI = 0.01, 0.43). Combined psychotherapy and medications (k = 19) was more effective to improve functioning compared to pharmacotherapy alone (g = 0.34, 95% CI = 0.18, 0.50) and compared to psychotherapy alone (g = 0.32, 95% CI = 0.14, 0.49). Combined treatment was also more efficacious for improved quality of life compared to medications alone (g = 0.36, 95% CI = 0.11, 0.62) and to psychotherapy alone (g = 0.39, 95% CI = 0.19, 0.58).
Combined treatment of medications and psychotherapy is more effective than either treatment alone for improving functioning and quality of life. However, most patients prefer psychotherapy to medications, and some studies indicate that many patients choose not to get treated at all rather than receive medications. Further, quality of life can be substantially compromised by medication side effects. Clinicians should take these factors into account when considering monotherapy with antidepressant medications or combined treatment of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for depression.
The Quality of Psychotherapy Research Affects The Size of Treatment Effects for CBT
Cuijpers, P., Cristea, I.A., Karyotaki, E., Reijnders, M., Huibers, M.J.J. (2016). How effective are cognitive behavior therapies for major depression and anxiety disorders? A meta-analytic update of the evidence. World Psychiatry, 15, 245-258.
You might think that an esoteric topic like study quality should not really be of interest or concern to clinicians – but it is an important topic with practice implications. In this meta analysis Pim Cuijpers and his research group updated the meta analytic evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for a variety of disorders (major depressive disorder [MDD], generalized anxiety disorder [GAD], panic disorder [PAD], and social anxiety disorder [SAD]). The important thing about meta analyses is that the method combines the effect sizes from all relevant studies into a single metric – an average effect size. These average effect sizes are much more reliable than findings from any one single study. In fact, whenever possible, clinical decision-making should be based on a meta analysis and systematic review and not on a single study. Meta analyses also allow one to give more weight to those studies that have larger sample sizes, and that employ better methodologies. Even more, meta analytic techniques allow one to adjust the averaged effect size by taking into account publication bias (i.e., an indication of the effects from studies that might have been completed but were never published, likely because they had unfavorable findings). Usually, average effect sizes are lower when they are adjusted for study quality and publication bias. Cuijpers and colleagues’ meta analyses found that the unadjusted average effects of CBT were large for each of the disorders (ranging from g = .75 to .88 [confidence intervals not reported]). However adjusting for publication bias reduced the effects to medium-sized for MDD (g = .65) and GAD (g = .59). Only 17.4% of the individual studies of CBT were considered to be of “high quality” (i.e., studies that use the best methodology to reduce bias, like random allocation, blinding, using all the available data, etc.). After adjusting for study quality, the effects of CBT for SAD (g = .61) and PAD (g = .76) were also reduced to medium-sized. Not surprisingly, the effects of CBT were largest when the treatment was compared to a wait-list no-treatment control group. The effects were small to moderate when CBT was compared to treatment as usual or to a placebo.
Even when adjusting for study quality and publication bias, the average effects of CBT were medium-sized for a variety of common disorders compared to control conditions. Unfortunately, the quality of the studies was not high for most trials, reducing the effect sizes and lowering our confidence in the efficacy of the treatment. Nevertheless, the findings of this meta analysis suggest that CBT will likely have moderate effects for the average patient with MDD, SAD, PAD, and GAD.
No Added Value to Adding Antidepressants to Psychotherapy
Karyotaki, E., Smit, Y., Henningsen, H., Huibers, M.J.H., Robays, J., de Beurs, D., & Cuijpers, P. (2016). Combining pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy or monotherapy for major depression? A meta-analysis on the long-term effects. Journal of Affective Disorders, 194, 144-152.
Depression is a highly prevalent disorder and is expected to become the second largest cause of disability by 2020. Part of the reason for this high level of burden is that depression tends to be a recurrent disorder with high rates of mortality and morbidity. The post-treatment effects of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy for treating mild to moderate depression are comparable, and combining the two interventions appears to result in better outcomes. Treatment guidelines recommend pharmacotherapy for at least six months to prevent relapse of depressive symptoms. But to what extent does combined antidepressants with psychotherapy result in a different response than pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy alone in the longer term? The meta analysis by Karotaki and colleagues was conducted to address this question. They defined psychotherapy to include any psychological intervention between a therapist and patient that was verbal in nature, and that included in-person, internet-based, telephone, or bibliotherapy components. Types of psychotherapy included CBT, interpersonal, dynamic, and problem solving therapy. Only studies with outcomes at six months or longer (up to 48 months) after the start of treatment were included. The meta analysis included 23 studies with a total of 2164 patients with major depression who receive combined therapy in at least one arm of the study. Antidepressants included SSRIs, SNRIs, and tricyclic medications. In the acute phase treatment (i.e., in studies of treatment during the occurrence of depressive symptoms), combining antidepressants with psychotherapy was more effective than antidepressants alone. But combined treatment was not more effect than psychotherapy alone at six months or longer after the start of treatment. In maintenance treatment (i.e., in studies to prevent relapse of depression) psychotherapy with antidepressants was more effective that pharmacotherapy alone. Type of psychotherapy or medication did not affect any of the results.
The meta analysis suggests that in the treatment of patients who currently have depressive symptoms (acute phase) psychotherapy alone is as effective in the long run as combining psychotherapy with antidepressants. However combination treatment is more effective that antidepressants alone, presumably because of the added value of psychotherapy. To prevent relapse (maintenance phase), combined treatment of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy was more effective than antidepressants alone. Psychotherapy may be a viable alternative to combined treatment with medications for treatment of current active depressive symptoms. Psychotherapy often results in patients improving their interpersonal skills and coping mechanisms which they can then use to sustain their improvements in the longer term.
Cognitive Therapy and Dynamic Psychotherapy for Major Depression in a Community Setting
Connolly Gibbons, M.B., Gallop, R., Thompson, D., Luther, D., Crits-Christoph, K., Jacobs, J., Yin, S., & Crits-Christoph, P. (2016). Comparative effectiveness of cognitive therapy and dynamic psychotherapy for major depressive disorder in a community mental health setting: A randomized clinical noninferiority trial. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1720.
Dynamic psychotherapy is widely practiced in the community, but there remain very few trials assessing its effectiveness. Dynamic therapy targets individuals’ problematic relationship conflicts. Cognitive therapy on the other hand has been established as effective for major depression in a number of controlled trials. This study by Connolly Gibbons and colleagues was designed to test if dynamic therapy was equivalent (not inferior) to cognitive therapy in treating major depressive disorder in a community setting. There are two important and novel aspects to this research. First, the study takes place with community-based therapists in a community mental health setting. This means that the usual critique that randomized controlled trials do not speak to what therapists do with real patients in everyday practice is addressed in this study. Second, the sample size is large enough and the study is sufficiently powered so that one can make conclusions about non-inferiority (statistics geeks will know that making a hypothesis of non-inferiority, equivalence, or no difference requires enough power and a large enough sample size – something that is quite rare in psychotherapy trials). Twenty therapists who worked in a community mental health center were trained by experts in dynamic therapy or cognitive therapy. The therapists treated 237 adults with major depressive disorder with 16 sessions of dynamic or cognitive therapy. Therapists were followed the treatment manuals and they were judged by independent raters as competent in delivering the treatment. Patients on average got significantly better regarding depressive symptoms (d = .55 to .65), and there were no significant differences in the rate of improvement between dynamic and cognitive therapy patients (d = .11). There were also no differences between treatments on several measures of quality of life. A noteworthy finding was that about 80% of patients continued to have some depressive symptoms by the end of treatment even though they improved.
This study adds to research indicating that short-term dynamic psychotherapy is as effective as short term cognitive therapy for treating major depression. The study also indicates that the treatments under intensive supervision and training can be provided effectively by community therapists in real world settings. That 80% of patients continued to have some depressive symptoms suggests that the short term nature of the therapies may not have represented a large enough dose of treatment for most patients.