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
The Importance of Focusing on Problems in Psychotherapy
Yulish, N. E., Goldberg, S. B., Frost, N. D., Abbas, M., Oleen-Junk, N. A., Kring, M., . . . Wampold, B. E. (2017). The importance of problem-focused treatments: A meta-analysis of anxiety treatments. Psychotherapy, 54(4), 321-338.
Typically, meta-analyses indicate that the differences between treatments in client outcomes are small or non-existent. When a treatment is found to be more effective than a comparison condition, it is usually because the treatment (and not the comparison) is focused on the particular problem that is measured as the main outcome variable. The contextual model of change in psychotherapy posits three paths to client change: 1) therapist empathy and the real therapeutic relationship; 2) client expectations related to the therapist’s explanation of the problems and of how the therapy will reduce these problems (e.g., agreement on tasks and goals, which are aspects of therapeutic alliance); and 3) the direct specific interventions of the therapy to address these problems. In this meta-analysis, Yulish and colleagues examine aspects of the second and third component of the contextual model by examining if the difference between treatments for anxiety disorders is due to the relative differences in their focus on symptoms. In this systematic review, the authors identified 135 randomized controlled trials of direct comparisons of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. They then rated each treatment and control condition for: the amount of explanation provided to clients for their symptoms, the amount of explanation provided to clients for the treatment approach, and the specificity of the interventions to address the symptoms. In a series of meta-regressions the authors found that: 1) explanations for the symptoms and for the treatment approach, and 2) treatments that were more symptom focused resulted in larger treatment effects. When the authors pit explanations against symptom focus to predict outcomes, they found that providing clients with an explanation for symptoms and interventions (which resulted in higher client expectations of receiving benefit) was more important than the symptom focus of the treatment.
This study suggests three mechanisms by which psychotherapy may lead to symptom relief for anxiety disorders: 1) providing clients with a clear explanation of symptoms and of therapeutic interventions, 2) having an agreement about the tasks and goals of therapy (i.e., therapeutic alliance), and 3) engaging in specific therapeutic actions that derive from the explanation of symptoms. Sitting with a client, being warm and accepting, expressing empathy and understanding, but not providing the client an explanation for his or her distress or a means to overcoming that distress may not be good enough. Such approaches may be beneficial for some with anxiety disorders, but they fail to fully make use of the factors that lead to effective therapy. The expectations of benefit created by the explanation of symptoms and interventions, in addition to specific therapeutic actions that are consistent with the explanation, may play a critical role in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
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Does Therapist Training Improve Client Outcomes?
Erekson, D. M., Janis, R., Bailey, R. J., Cattani, K., & Pedersen, T. R. (2017). A longitudinal investigation of the impact of psychotherapist training: Does training improve client outcomes? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(5), 514-524.
The research on the effects of therapist training on client outcomes has not been very encouraging. Most studies indicate that more therapist training, better adherence to and competence in a treatment manual, and greater experience are not related to improved client outcomes. The profession would like to think that therapists affect client outcomes so that more training and experience might be related to better outcomes. One could argue that the research in this area is hampered by many studies not following the same therapists across time over stages of training. That is, many studies compare client outcomes between novices and licensed professionals – but these studies do not really address the question “does an individual therapist get better as he or she accumulates more years of training and experience?” In this unique study, Erekson and colleagues track client outcomes of 22 therapists over a 10 year period starting from the therapists’ early training in a doctoral program in psychology to their first years as licensed psychologists working in a counselling centre. On average, the psychotherapists saw 183.95 (SD = 103.23) student clients during that time (range: 62 to 449 clients). The clients primarily had clinically impairing problems with anxiety and depression. Stages of training were defined as: graduate trainee, intern, post-doctoral fellow, and licensed professional. The average client moderately improved (d = .72) in terms of symptoms from the start to the end of their therapy. When looking at therapists’ effects across stages of training, the authors controlled for client initial severity and size of therapist caseload. The results indicated that 4 of the 22 therapists improved in their client outcomes over stages of training, 10 remained the same, and 8 therapists worsened over time. On average, client outcomes remained the same across a therapist’s stage of training. However, average client rate of change (i.e., how quickly a therapist’s client improved) became slower as therapists achieved more training and experience.
This study adds to the weight of evidence that therapist training and experience as currently conceptualized do not result in better outcomes among clients. One possible explanation for why psychotherapist trainees do as well or better than when they are licensed professionals may lie in the structure of training programs. Trainees in graduate school and internships typically receive a high level of supervision and learning experiences, and must deliberately report client progress on an ongoing basis. Therapists who are licensed professionals are not required to maintain these practices, and so they may not be practicing deliberately. Researchers and clinical writers identify deliberate practice as an important means by which practicing psychotherapists can maintain and improve their skills in interpersonal effectiveness and therapeutic alliance.
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Therapist Multicultural Orientation and Client Outcomes
Hayes, J. A., Owen, J., Nissen-Lie, H. A. (2017). The contribution of client culture to differential therapist effectiveness. In L. G. Castonguay and C. E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects (Ch. 9). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Some therapists may have better client outcomes because they are more adept at working with clients of different cultures. In this chapter, Hayes and colleagues define culture as referring to a group of people who share common history, values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals. The cultural groups to which one may belong include those based on: gender, religion, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, race, and age, among others. Research suggests that culturally adapted therapy is more effective than unadapted therapy for racial minority clients. This may be due to more effective therapists being able to explain clients’ mental health problems and provide a rationale for specific therapy interventions that is congruent with the client’s beliefs. The most common model of multicultural therapy is multicultural competence, which is defined by having knowledge of various cultural groups, skills to navigate cultural processes, and self-awareness of personal bias. However, Hayes and colleagues argue for a multicultural orientation model in which a therapist is humble, respectful, and open to addressing culture in therapy. Whereas multicultural therapy is about acquiring knowledge, multicultural orientation refers to a way of being with clients. Hayes and colleagues review the research literature that indicates that therapists with cultural expertise are those who acknowledge when they do not have specific knowledge about a culture, have a high tolerance for not knowing, and at the same time recognize that cultural socialization affect clients’ mental health. A multicultural orientation is intended to bolster and support current therapeutic practices. For example, therapists may recognize that they need to better understand clients’ heritage when deciding whether or not to challenging a deeply held core belief related to the clients’ culture. In support of this, Hayes and colleagues review the research that indicates that: (1) client perception of therapist humility is related to client outcomes, especially for clients with a strong cultural identity; (2) clients who perceived that their therapist missed opportunities to discuss cultural issues in session had worse therapy outcomes; (3) clients who perceived therapists as culturally oriented experienced the therapy as more credible; and (4) therapist cultural comfort was related to better client outcomes.
The authors suggest that therapists ask open-ended questions to clients regarding their cultural identity, such as asking the role that religion and spirituality play in their lives. This would allow therapists to learn about client cultural identity in the client’s own words. It is particularly important for therapists to maintain a stance of humility and cultural comfort, and to attend to opportunities to work productively with cultural issues in therapy in order to improve their clients’ outcomes.
Do Psychotherapy Trainees Get Better with More Training?
Owen, J., Wampold, B. E., Kopta, M., Rousmaniere, T., & Miller, S. D. (2016). As good as it gets? Therapy outcomes of trainees over time. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 12-19.
Does psychotherapy training improve trainees’ knowledge and skills? Do trainees improve in their ability to produce positive client outcomes over time? The research on training psychotherapists is mostly inconclusive. Some studies show little or no difference between trainees and experienced therapists, and others found no association between level of experience and client outcomes. On the other hand, some researchers have found a relationship between training and competence in delivering a particular type of treatment. Overall, the research seems to show that there is a lot of variability between therapists in their outcomes and on how training affects their practice and their clients’ outcomes. However, rarely do these studies assess outcomes within the same trainee over time as they accumulate more training. In this study, Owen and colleagues evaluate if psychotherapy trainees’ client outcomes improved with training over time. They assessed 114 psychology trainees at different levels of training in 47 clinics across the U.S. These training therapists saw over 1100 clients over at least a 12-month period, and many therapists were followed for three years. The average client improved, but with small effects (d = .31, CIs not reported). Therapists were more effective with clients who were more distressed (d = .66) than clients who were less distressed (d = .10), probably because more distressed clients had more room to improve. Trainees’ outcomes improved significantly over time, although their average improvement over time was small. Most importantly, trainees’ improvements over time varied so that the researchers were able to identify four patterns of change over a three year period of training: (1) one group of trainees started out with moderately good outcomes and their outcomes remained moderately good over time; (2) a second group started out with small positive effects in their client outcomes and they improved to achieve moderately good outcomes by their third year; (3) a third group of trainees started out with small positive client outcomes but their outcomes got worse by their third year; and (4) a fourth group started out with poor outcomes and improved to achieve small positive outcomes by year 3 of their training.
Trainees appear to have various trajectories in their ability to foster positive client outcomes over time, and, at times, that trajectory is negative. Trainees whose outcomes get worse over time (group 3) or who do not achieve at least moderately good outcomes (group 4) may need specific training to foster better interpersonal effectiveness, empathy, management of countertransference, and humility. In general, therapists should assess their clients’ outcomes with progress monitoring tools in order to use the feedback to improve their outcomes over time. If outcomes are not positive on average, then therapists should consider remediation, further training, or consultation.
Therapeutic Alliance in the Treatment of Adolescents
Murphy, R. & Hutton, P. (2017). Therapist variability, patient reported therapeutic alliance, and clinical outcomes in adolescents undergoing mental health treatment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi:10.1111/jcpp.12767.
The therapeutic alliance refers to the affective bond between therapist and client, and their agreement on the tasks and goals of therapy. The alliance is a well-known predictor of outcomes in adult psychotherapy with a mean alliance-outcome correlation of r = .28. Less is known about the role of the alliance in the treatment of adolescents. Some reviews indicate that the alliance-outcome relationship in children and adolescents is weaker than observed among adults, but these reviews may have been flawed since they included both children and adolescents in the same review, and the number of studies they reviewed was small. A large rigorous systematic review of adolescents’ perceptions of the alliance can provide insight into their experience of psychological treatment and inform routine mental health practice. In their meta analysis, Murphy and Hutton reviewed studies of clinical samples of adolescents between the age of 12 – 19 who received psychological treatment. The authors made sure that the measures of alliance and outcomes were reliable, they excluded studies of those with medical and neurocognitive problems, and included only studies with adolescents (i.e., excluding studies with primarily children). Twenty-seven studies with almost 3,000 participants were included. Main presenting problems of adolescent patients were: substance use, eating disorders, behavioral difficulties, and a range of mood and anxiety disorders. The mean weighted effect size of the alliance-outcome relationship among studies of psychological treatment of adolescents was r = .29 (95% CI: 0.21, 0.37; p < .001) indicating a moderate effect.
This is the largest meta analysis of the alliance-outcome relationship in the psychological treatment of adolescents with mental health problems. The alliance was moderately associated with outcomes, and so therapeutic alliance may be a reliable predictor of clinical progress in the treatment of adolescents. The findings suggest that those working with adolescents should routinely assess the alliance after each session in order to evaluate if they need to address relational barriers to positive outcomes. For example, if the alliance markedly declines from one session to the next, then clinicians should address potential problems in their relationship with the adolescent client, renegotiate goals, or renegotiate the tasks of therapy.
Group Psychotherapy for Eating Disorders
Grenon, R., Schwartze, D., Hammond, N., Ivanova, I., Mcquaid, N., Proulx, G., & Tasca, G. A. (2017). Group psychotherapy for eating disorders: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders. DOI: 10.1002/eat.22744
Group therapy has an evidence base indicating its efficacy for many disorders. Groups represent a social microcosm in which interpersonal factors that underlie psychological distress and symptoms can be effectively addressed. Group therapeutic factors include peer interpersonal feedback, social learning, emotional expression, and group cohesion. Theories of eating disorder symptoms include interpersonal problems and affect dysregulation as maintenance factors. Many treatment guidelines indicate that individual and group CBT are the treatments of choice for eating disorders. However, there are no meta analyses that specifically look at the efficacy of group therapy for eating disorders. In this study, Grenon and colleagues assess if: (a) group psychotherapy for eating disorders is efficacious compared to wait-list controls, (b) group therapy is effective compared to other active treatments (self help, individual therapy, medications), and (c) group CBT is more effective than other types of group therapy (group interpersonal therapy [GIPT], group psychodynamic-interpersonal psychotherapy [GPIP], or group dialectical behavior therapy [GDBT]). The authors reviewed 27 randomized controlled trials with over 1800 patients that provided direct comparisons of group therapy for eating disorders. The mean drop out rate from group therapy was 16.47% (SD = 13.46), which is similar to what is reported for psychotherapy trials in general. Group therapy was significantly more effective than wait list controls in achieving abstinence from binge eating and purging (RR = 5.51, 95% CI: 3.73, 8.12), decreasing the frequency of binge eating and/or purging (g = 0.70, 95% CI: 0.51, 0.90), and reducing related psychopathology (g = 0.49, 95% CI: 0.32, 0.66). Group psychotherapy had an overall rate of abstinence from binge eating of 51.38%, while wait-list control conditions had an overall abstinence rate of 6.51%. Similar findings were achieved a follow-ups. The effects of group psychotherapy and other active treatments (e.g., behavioral weight loss, self-help, individual psychotherapy) did not differ on any outcome at post-treatment or at follow-ups. Group CBT and other forms of group psychotherapy did not differ significantly on outcomes at any time point.
The results add to a growing body of research that indicates that group psychotherapy is as effective as other treatments, including individual therapy, to treat mental disorders. Despite the fact that practice guidelines indicate that CBT is the treatment of choice for eating disorders, this meta analysis did not provide evidence that group CBT was more effective than other types of group treatments. Clinicians considering group interventions for eating disorders or other mental health problems will do well to make use of group therapeutic factors like interpersonal learning, peer feedback, emotional expression, and group cohesion to improve patient outcomes.