Saturday, February 09, 2008

Questions about Psychotherapy

A recent editorial in the Journal of Psychopharmacology by David J. Nutt and Michael Sharpe raises questions about the efficacy and safety of psychotherapy. It's currently available free of charge, but will be placed behind a pay wall 90 days after initial publication.

Clearly, an editorial in a psychopharmacology journal is not going to be sympathetic to psychotherapy and this article does not disappoint. I'm going to discuss four of their points.

1. Is Psychotherapy Effective?

Nutt and Sharpe begin by questioning the effectiveness of psychotherapy. They say, "few psychotherapy trials have complied with the standard regulations that are required of all drug treatments." This is both true and not true. Psychotherapy cannot be evaluated in the same way as drug therapy. It's a different treatment and there are different issues in evaluating it. Psychotherapy is a procedure, and as such, it is more akin to surgery, than it is to pharmacotherapy.

Nevertheless, psychotherapy has a rich and diverse research base, going back over 50 years. In particular, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), always grudgingly acknowledged as an empirically based therapy, is based on a large body of literature involving operant conditioning, classical conditioning, rational emotive behavior therapy, self control and self-management. There are large numbers of outcome studies available. While few are large-scale studies, the accumulation of the data through meta analysis still shows fairly robust and positive results.

This research base has given us a good understanding of how CBT works. See the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change for some excellent reviews of the research. In fact, we have a better idea of how CBT works than how drug therapy works. We have a pretty good idea about how changing thoughts change mood, and how exposure changes anxiety. In contrast, we still haven't been able to define that "biochemical imbalance" that allegedly causes depression. If you think we have, ask a psychopharmacologist what the balance is, or ask why one SSRI works and another doesn't.

Nutt and Sharpe also raise the issue of whether or not psychotherapy has been evaluated with double blind studies and placebo controls. I'm going to leave that issue for another day. I think they're wrong, but that's going to require more research than I have time for tonight.

Is Psychotherapy Safe?

Nutt and Sharpe question the safety of psychotherapy. They begin by arguing that psychotherapy can, in some cases, worsen outcomes. In particular, they identify suicidal patients and manic patients as being at risk. However, any treatment can cause problems in these patients. We have all heard of the worsening of suicidal ideation in adolescents on SSRI's (Nutt and Sharpe minimize this, but the black box is still there). Less well known is that SSRI's can also cause a manic episode in people with bipolar disorder. One advantage of psychotherapy is that the individual is seen more frequently and can be managed if they deteriorate. In contrast, people receiving drug therapy may not have any contact with their physician for a month or longer.

Another issue they raise involves an old technique called flooding. In exposure therapy, we deliberately expose people to feared stimuli, but in gradual steps. Flooding therapy involves fully immersing the subject in the feared situation all at once. Here is what Nutt and Sharp say about it:
When taken to its logical extreme [exposure therapy] becomes flooding therapy, which was once popular. The anxiety induced by flooding can be extraordinarily distressing and there are well recognised examples of patients escaping in fear from their treatment andrefusing further sessions. David Nutt runs a specialist anxiety disorders clinic in which we have seen a number of patients who could be considered as suffering from a PTSD-like syndrome as a consequence of failed flooding treatment for phobias and OCD. (p.4)
I can believe that a "PTSD-like syndrome" could occur as a result of premature termination of flooding. In fact, I never thought I would have the intestinal fortitude to keep a client in a feared situation long enough to make the procedure work. So, I never did any flooding, and, in fact, I've never met a therapist who ever did any flooding. They must have been out there, but I never traveled in their circles. So, I can't believe it was "popular."

Besides, isn't this an example of the pot calling the kettle black? Shall I now list the now-rejected medical procedures that have hurt people? Ever read the book, The Lobotomist? We who help those in pain often feel the need to "do something," to help people and we often wind up hurting instead of helping.

Nutt and Sharpe then raise the "false memory syndrome" canard. According to advocates of this syndrome, questioning people about past trauma can cause people to develop false memories of events. In reality, experimental evidence for false memory syndrome is weak. Ken Pope has a good discussion of the problems with false memory syndrome here.

Nutt and Sharpe unwittingly provide an excellent example of how badly false memory syndrome is abused. They say:
One young adult patient of David Nutt’s with severe OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder--F.O.) was quizzed by a therapist about the possibility that she had suffered sexual abuse by family members. This led to her developing chronic ruminations about the possibility that she might have been abused by her father, even though she knew this had not happened. As a consequence for years she was unable to tolerate being in the same room as him, which markedly exacerbated her problems and caused great distress to the family. (emphasis added; p.4)
The section I italicized is the key. The patient knew full well that her father never abused her, so this could never have been an issue of false memories. Instead, this woman was struggling with an obsession. No big surprise. She had OCD. The woman obsessed over the possibility of her father abusing her.

There have clearly been some therapeutic abuses in the name of uncovering a history of trauma. This ain't one of them. A therapist who doesn't consider the possibility of trauma in a severely ill patient isn't doing his or her job.

Are Effective Treatments Withheld?

Moving on, Nutt and Sharpe argue, "Another proven potential risk of psychotherapeutic treatment is that effective drug treatments are withheld either because the therapist does not believe in their efficacy or because the patients are not introduced to the possibility of their being useful in their condition (Klerman, 1991)." True, but this is not a risk of psychotherapy. It's a risk of being a true believer. How many times have patients not been referred to psychotherapists because the physician doesn't believe in it?

Therapist Misconduct

Finally, Nutt and Sharpe bring up the risk of sexual misconduct. They site a 1986 study showing 7% of male psychiatrists and 3% of female psychiatrists have engaged in sexual contact with their patients. I am assuming these are psychiatrists who are providing psychotherapy. But this data is over 20 years old and since then, laws have been enacted, and licensing boards have been aggressive in enforcing a ban on so-called dual relationships. In Pennsylvania, it's a felony to sleep with a client. Yes, I know it still happens. But overall, this isn't a problem with psychotherapy. It's a problem with power relationships. Professors sleep with their students. Business people sleep with their secretaries. This kind of sexual misconduct occurs everywhere there's a power imbalance between men and women. Thankfully, my profession has been aggressive about stopping this.


After all this, I'm not willing to just write off Nutt and Sharpe as a pair of physicians with an axe to grind. I agree that psychotherapy is not as closely regulated as pharmacotherapy and I'd like to see greater quality control over psychotherapeutic services. But like other hands-on treatments, such as surgery, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and others, much of the effectiveness of treatment relies on the skills of the provider. This comes from training. One of the great disappointments to me has been the unwillingness of the leadership in psychology to improve training and accountability.

Psychology defines itself as the science of behavior, and we often research psychotherapy. But, when it comes time to say, "Yes, I believe the data. We should do A and not B to treat depression," we back down and run away. Too many people view any effort to develop treatment guidelines as an attack on psychotherapy. It's a shame that papers like this are so poorly drawn that they reinforce this belief.


Attack Anxiety said...
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John Weaver said...

This sounds a great deal like the biblical counseling movement in evangelicalism, which I am currently blogging about. The biblical counseling movement believes that all mental illness is caused by sin, and they have some pretty radical ideas about psychiatric medication.
Good to see that someone is looking out for the mentally ill.

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