Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: May 2013


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


blogCombining Medication and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Depression

Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change

Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month 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 can be viewed on Amazon.

Combining Medication and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Depression

Forand, N.R., DeRubeis, R.J., & Amsterdam, J.D. (2013). Combining medication and psychotherapy in the treatment of major mental disorders. In M.J. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield's handbook of psychotherapy and behaviour change (6th ed.), pp. 735-774. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

This comprehensive chapter covers evidence for combining medication and psychotherapy for several disorders. This month I report on the section of the chapter on depression. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications appear to have similar efficacy in short-term treatment trials, though psychotherapy has better outcomes than medication in the longer term. Psychotherapeutic treatments including Brief Dynamic Therapy (BDT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) confer enduring benefit by preventing relapse and recurrence when compared to discontinuing medication. Antidepressant medication is modestly effective during initial short-term treatments with remission rates less than 50% and long term recurrence range from 40% to 85%. Combining medication with psychotherapy provides a small to moderate short term advantage over monotherapy of medication or psychotherapy. Combining medication and psychotherapy is more useful for when considering chronicity rather than severity of depression. The results are consistent for BDT, IPT, and for CBT.  In the longer term, efficacy of combined treatments is not better than either monotherapy. Taken together, the evidence for combined therapy for depression is modestly positive with little evidence that treatments interfere with each other (by contrast, see the March 2013 blog for findings of interference in combined therapy for anxiety disorders). Nevertheless, prolonged continuation of medication monotherapy is an added expense that is often ineffective. In fact, prolonged antidepressant medication maintenance can worsen the course of depressive illness for some, and efficacy tends to fade after 3 to 6 months of maintenance. Finally, there is emerging evidence of progressive tolerance (tachyphylaxis) or even worsening of symptoms during medication maintenance. Studies suggest that psychotherapy added to maintenance medication was associated with decreased relapse rates when compared to medication alone in the longer term.

Practice implications

Combined treatments (antidepressant medication plus psychotherapy) for major depression provide modest incremental improvements in response over monotherapy. Results of combination treatments are better, though still modest, for those with chronic depression. The evidence does not support the use of combined treatments for mild to moderate depression, unless the individual does not responds to initial monotherapy. Practitioners could consider monotherapy (i.e., psychotherapy or medication) first, followed by switching therapy or augmenting therapy for non-responders. If a patient is started on short term monotherapy of medication, practitioners may consider switching to psychotherapy for better long term relapse prevention.

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blogDoes the Therapeutic Alliance Work Differently in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Versus Psychodynamic Therapy?

Ulvenes, P. G., Berggraf, L., Hoffart, A., Stiles, T. C., Svartberg, M., McCullough, L., & Wampold, B. E. (2012). Different processes for different therapies: Therapist actions, therapeutic bond, and outcome. Psychotherapy, 49(3), 291-302.

One of the few truisms of psychotherapy is that the therapeutic alliance is important to treatment outcomes. But does the alliance work similarly in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and in Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)? Therapeutic alliance is defined by three elements: the bond between client and therapist, agreement on tasks, and agreement on goals. Compared to PDT therapists, CBT therapists tend to focus more on cognitions and focus less on emotions, and so the bond may be less important in CBT than agreement on tasks and goals. Will the bond between client and therapist be differentially affected by the differing focus on emotions between CBT and PDT? A study by Ulvenes and colleagues (2012) looked at this question. This study is a follow up study of a randomized controlled trial comparing CBT to PDT for the treatment of cluster C personality traits (i.e. individuals who have trouble in experiencing and expressing emotions, and in developing close relationships). Fifty clients were randomized to either CBT or PDT, therapy was short term, and therapists were experienced and competent in delivering their therapy. In the previous study the authors reported that CBT and PDT were both equally effective in treating clients with cluster C personality disorder. In the current study, the authors found that therapist avoidance of affect was associated with developing a greater bond with patients in both CBT and PDT. That is, Cluster C patients liked their therapists better if the therapists avoided talking about the clients’ feelings. However, focusing on affect in PDT was also associated with positive outcome. In other words, therapists who avoided talking about emotions in PDT helped the patient like the therapist better, but this was counterproductive for good outcome. PDT therapists had to manage to create a bond despite their focus on affect in order to achieve good outcomes. On the other hand, focusing on affect in CBT was associated with poorer outcome. That is, therapists who avoided affect in CBT, which is consistent with the treatment model, had clients who experienced both a better bond and better outcomes. Therapeutic alliance is important for all therapies, but may operate quite differently depending on how much the therapy focuses on affect (PDT) or on cognitions (CBT).

Practice Implications

PDT therapists working with cluster C patients have to negotiate a complex task of maintaining a bond despite the treatment model’s focus on emotions in order to achieve good outcomes. CBT therapists will do well to be consistent with the treatment model and focus primarily on cognitions to help with the bond and promote good outcomes. CBT therapists in particular may need to develop a strong bond before agreeing on tasks and goals, which are also keys to a therapeutic alliance.

View the Does the Therapeutic Alliance Work Differently in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Versus Psychodynamic Therapy? article abstract.
Author email: pal.ulvenes@modum-bad.no.

Comment

I had a question about the recent article posted about the effects of therapeutic alliance on CBT/PDT delivered services to Cluster C clients...in the full article, do the authors explain why they chose cluster C folks, instead of a different population? Maybe I've not thought about it enough, but at first glance, I wondered if choosing Cluster C folks would skew the results. Your thoughts?

Matthew T. Rippeyoung, MA, C. Psych
Ottawa, ON

Response

Thank you for your response to the Blog. Your observation is very interesting. I believe the original trial was to compare CBT to PDT for Cluster C patients, but I'm not sure exactly why they chose that population. Were the results of the therapeutic alliance study affected by the population? Almost certainly. These participants likely felt a closer bond to therapists who did not focus on affect in the treatment (mainly CBT therapists in this study) because of the consistency of this therapeutic approach with the patient preference to avoid emotions. It's quite possible that patients who hyper-activate their emotional experiences (say cluster B personality disorders) would bond better with therapists who actively focused on emotions (e.g., PDT therapists). I'm not aware of any research that looks at this, but it seems likely.

Rejoinder

Thanks for your quick response. Being in private practice and not affiliated with a university or hospital, I sometimes start to feel like I've gotten too far out of the research loop--your response was encouraging and made me glad to have this network as a resource.

Matthew T. Rippeyoung, MA, C. Psych
Ottawa, ON

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blogAre the Effects of Psychotherapy for Depression Overestimated?

Niemeyer, H., Musch, J., & Pietrowsky, R. (2013). Publication bias in meta-analyses of the efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions for depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 58-74.

Meta-analyses are important ways of summarizing effects of medical and psychological interventions by aggregating effect sizes across a large number of studies. (Don’t stop reading, I promise this won’t get too statistical). The aggregated effect size from a meta analysis is more reliable than the findings of any individual study. That is why practice guidelines almost exclusively rely on meta analyses when making practice recommendations (see for example the Resources tab on this web site). However meta analyses are only as good as the data (i.e., studies) that go into them (hence, the old adage: “garbage in, garbage out”). For example, if the studies included in a meta analysis are a biased representation of all studies, then the meta analysis results will be unreliable leading to misleading practice guidelines. One problem that leads to unreliable meta analyses is called publication bias. Publication bias often refers to the tendency of peer reviewed journals not to publish studies with non-significant results (e.g., a study showing a treatment is no better than a control condition). Publication bias may also refer to active suppression of data by researchers or industry. Suppression of research results may occur because an intervention's effects were not supported by the data, or the intervention was harmful to some study participants. In medical research, publication bias can have dire public health consequences (see this TED Talk). There is lots of evidence that publication bias has lead to a significant over-estimation of the effects of antidepressant medications (see Turner et al (2008) New England Journal of Medicine). Does publication bias exist in psychotherapy research, and if so does this mean that psychotherapy is not as effective as we think? A recent study by Niemeyer and colleagues (2013) addressed this question with the most up to date research and statistical techniques. They collected 31 data sets each of which included 6 or more studies of psychotherapeutic interventions (including published and unpublished studies) for depression. The majority of interventions tested were cognitive behavioral therapy, but interpersonal psychotherapy, and brief psychodynamic therapy were also included. The authors applied sophisticated statistical techniques to assess if publication bias existed. (Briefly, there are ways of assessing if the distribution of effect sizes across data sets fall in a predictable pattern called a “funnel plot” – specific significant deviations from this pattern indicate positive or negative publication bias). Niemeyer and colleagues found minimal evidence of publication bias in published research of psychotherapy for depression. This minimal bias had almost no impact on the size of the effect of psychotherapy for depression.

Practice Implications

This is a very important result indicating that despite a minor tendency toward a selective publication of positive results, the efficacy of all reviewed psychotherapy interventions for depression remained substantial, even after correcting for the publication bias. Niemeyer and colleagues’ findings demonstrate that publication bias alone cannot explain the considerable efficacy of psychotherapy for depression. Psychotherapeutic interventions can still be considered efficacious and recommended for the treatment of depression.

View the Are the Effects of Psychotherapy for Depression Overestimated? article abstract.
Author email address: helen.niemeyer@hhu.de

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