Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: February 2017


Giorgio A. TascaAt the PPRNet conference in November 2012 over 100 psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators were very keen to receive ongoing information about psychotherapy research that is practice-oriented and presented in an easily readable format. And so the PPRNet Blog was born.

About once a month I will review and summarize two or three published psychotherapy research articles. As part of the summary, I will highlight the practice implications of the research.

Because of copyright issues, we cannot post the full text of the articles, but we will provide a link to the abstract on the publisher's web site. I will also post the author's email address. Most authors are very happy to share their work. So if you want a copy of the article send the author an email with a request for a pdf or reprint.

At the bottom of each review you can post a comment, and comment on your colleagues' comments. I will update these as frequently as possible.

If you have ideas for an article to review or a topic you would like to see covered, please send me an email at pprnet@toh.on.ca.

Giorgio A. Tasca


blogThe 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 as 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.

Practice Implications
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.  

Click here for the abstract
Author email: greenber@upstate.edu

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blogHas 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.

Practice Implications
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.

Click here for a copy of the article.
Author email not available.

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blogMindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Prevent Relapse of Depression

Kuyken, W., Warren, F.C., Taylor, R.S., Whalley, B., Crane, C….Dalgliesh, T. (2016).  Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse An individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry, 73, 565-574.

Depression results in a high level of disability and its social and economic costs appear to be rising. Although many effective treatments for depression do exist, relapse of depressive symptoms is a significant problem for many who successfully complete treatment. One of the interventions used to prevent relapse is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBCT teaches psychological skills that target cognitive factors that may cause relapse among those who have a history of depression by combining mindfulness training with cognitive interventions. Previous reviews have indicated the efficacy of MBCT for relapse prevention. In this meta-analysis, Kuyken and colleagues update the previous reviews and look at specific sub groups of patients who may respond differently to MBCT. From a comprehensive search of the literature, they identified 9 published randomized controlled trials comparing MBCT to another condition such as usual care, antidepressant medications, or another active treatment. These 9 studies included 1258 patients. MBCT resulted in a reduced risk of relapse in depressive symptoms compared to those who did not received MBCT within a 60 week follow up period (hazard ratio (HR), 0.79; 95%CI, 0.64-0.97). Four studies specifically compared MBCT to antidepressant medication and showed that those who received MBCT had a reduced risk of relapse compared to antidepressants (HR, 0.77; 95%CI, 0.60 – 0.98; I2, 0%). The authors also found that the preventive effect of MBCT on depression relapse declined over time. No demographic variables were associated with the effects of MBCT, but higher levels of depression at baseline were associated with a larger effect of MBCT.

Practice Implications
The findings of this meta analysis show that MBCT helps to prevent depression relapse in those who have recovered from depressive symptoms. Its effects appear to be superior to usual care and to antidepressant medications. Unlike anti depressants, those who were treated with MBCT learned skills that helped them to cope with stressors that may precipitate another depressive episode. The effects of MBCT appear to be particularly useful for those with greater depressive symptoms at the outset, but those with lower depressive symptoms may not benefit as much from MBCT.

Click here for a copy of the article.

Author email: willem.kuyken@psych.ox.ac.uk

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