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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Psychotherapy

Choosing an Effective Treatment

Karolina Rozworska, MA

Reprinted from the "Treatments: What Works?" issue of Visions Journal, 2015 15 (4), pp. 38-41

It is estimated that one in five Canadians live with a mental health problem that significantly interferes with their life activities.1 Most of these problems can be successfully managed with appropriate treatment, but finding an effective treatment can be a daunting task.

In this article, I describe how psychotherapy reduces mental health problems and how to choose a psychotherapy service that is a good fit.

What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is a treatment for mental health problems in which a mental health professional helps you change how you think, feel and behave using methods based on psychological, biological and social theories and research. Research shows that changing one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours reduces or eliminates symptoms of many mental health problems and improves quality of life. Psychotherapy is also used successfully to help people cope with or overcome life problems, such as adjusting to a health issue or overcoming discrimination, bullying or abuse, to name just a few. However, this article focuses only on mental health problems.

Psychotherapy is sometimes referred to as “counselling,” sometimes as “talk therapy” and sometimes simply as “therapy.” While these terms tendto be used interchangeably, the term “counselling” has also been used more broadly to describe supportive conversations between a health professional and the client. These might focus on regular medication intake, housing issues or helping navigate the health system. These types of counselling, while helpful, would not qualify as psychotherapy because they are not meant to treat mental health problems.

Psychotherapy is one of the best treatments for mental health problems. This statement is supported by 50 years’ worth of research.2 The question is not if psychotherapy works, but how.

How does psychotherapy work?

Researchers have different views about how and why psychotherapy works. The “active ingredients” in psychotherapy can be broadly grouped into specific and common factors. Knowing about these “active ingredients” can help choose a psychotherapy service that is a good fit for you.

Specific factors

Many researchers say that psychotherapy works because it offers carefully assembled interventions tailored for specific mental health problems. An example of an intervention would be when the therapist teaches the client how to challenge worrying thoughts by comparing them to facts. A different example is when the therapist and the client explore patterns in the client’s relationships across time. Another intervention would be when the therapist teaches the client strategies to become more aware of their emotions.

These interventions are called “specific factors” because they differ from one psychotherapy to another. A “psychotherapy” is understood here as a group of interventions. Researchers who study specific factors compare different psychotherapies (e.g., cognitive-behavioural therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, etc.) to each other to find the most effective psychotherapy for a specific mental health problem.

Which psychotherapies might best help your mental health issue?

The table (see below) shows psychotherapies that have the most research support for selected mental health problems. This is not a complete list and it is not meant to suggest that other psychotherapies cannot be effective. Research in this area grows quickly and many psychotherapies have not yet been tested. The combinations of specific psychotherapies and mental health problem pairs that could be studied are almost endless, especially when we take into account that some people have two or more mental health problems. However, the list can help you to make an informed decision about the psychotherapy that might be a fit for you.

Common factors

Other psychotherapy researchers believe that therapy works because of “common factors” that are shared across psychotherapies. According to these researchers, most psychotherapies can be helpful for most problems because the effectiveness lies in the art of how psychotherapy is done, not which interventions are used.

An example of a common factor is a positive, honest relationship between the therapist and the client, who are working toward the same goal. Another common factor is when the therapist and the client develop a shared understanding of the client’s problem and the way it can be changed. Yet another is when the client is given an opportunity to practise and master new skills that help overcome their problem.

Research supports the importance of common factors. For example, studies consistently show that a strong therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client leads to better outcomes in various therapies and problems.58

In addition, some researchers have shown that, when some aspects of research design are improved, psychotherapies might not be as different from each other in their effectiveness as those who study “specific factors” believe they are.59,60

How do I choose a psychotherapy that works for me?

Choosing a psychotherapy service can be overwhelming at first. So it can be helpful to use a guide such as some approaches used by therapists. One approach therapists use to decide how to work with a specific client is called evidence-based practice (EBP). EBP specifies three types of information that can help decide on the appropriate psychotherapy: 1) client characteristics, 2) research evidence, and 3) therapist’s clinical expertise. EBP has been recommended by the American and Canadian psychological associations61,62 and is also used in the field of medicine, where it originated. Although the principles of the EBP were designed to help clinicians, they can also be useful for clients who are deciding on the best psychotherapy service to meet their needs.

Here are some therapist and client characteristics that, according to research, affect outcomes in psychotherapy. You might want to consider them when choosing a psychotherapy service that meets your needs.

The therapist

Research suggests that the person who is delivering therapy has an impact on the treatment’s success. Most effective therapists are empathic, accepting, genuine, able to speak with you directly about any misunderstandings that happen between the two of you, and able to see strengths in your cultural worldview. They are also highly skilled, but not rigid, in the therapies that they provide.56 They will challenge you or invite you to step outside your comfort zone.64

You can monitor to see whether your therapist has these qualities. If you are not “clicking” with your therapist, it can be very helpful for both of you to have a conversation about this.

The client

You, as the client, are the most important ingredient of change in psychotherapy. You are the one who does most of the work. Studies show that clients with better outcomes understand their problems similarly to the way their therapist views them, but are also open to changing these understandings. They are motivated and have optimistic but not idealistic expectations toward therapy (unless they have depression, because negative expectations are part of the disorder).64.65

Reviewing your attitudes toward psychotherapy can help you assess if this is a good treatment for you.

Finding a ‘fit’—It’s worth making an effort

Psychotherapies and therapists vary in their styles of work—and your preferences in how you would like to work matter. You might meet with several therapists before you find a good fit. A good fit means that you feel respected and supported by your therapist and that you ‘buy into’ the psychotherapy approach enough to work hard and step outside your comfort zone. You might decide to choose a psychotherapy that was successfully studied with a problem like yours.

While choosing a service might not be easy, it is worth the effort—psychotherapy is, after all, one of the most effective treatments available for mental health problems. This is particularly true when you find a good combination of specific and common factors that match your needs.

Psychotherapies for specific disorders*

For plain-language definitions of the 30+ psychotherapies listed in this table, please see the Glossary of Treatments prepared by Visions staff.

Depression

Behavioural activation3
Cognitive-behavioural therapy4
Couples therapy:

  • Emotionally-focused couples therapy5

  • Behavioural marital therapy6,7

  • Systemic couples therapy8

Emotion-focused therapy9
Interpersonal therapy10
Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy11

Anxiety disorders

Acceptance and commitment therapy12,13,14
Cognitive-behavioural therapy15,16,17
Partner-assisted exposure for panic disorder18
Psychodynamic psychotherapy19**

Bipolar disorders

Cognitive-behavioural therapy51,52,53
Family-based therapy51,54,55,56
Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy51,57

Personality disorders: Cluster B (borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, antisocial)

Dialectical-behaviour therapy20,21,22
Mentalization-based therapy23
Schema-focused therapy24
Transference-focused psychotherapy20,25

Personality disorders: Cluster C (obsessive-compulsive, avoidant, dependant)

Cognitive-behavioural therapy26
Short-term dynamic psychotherapy26,27

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Cognitive-behavioural therapy28,29,30
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing31
Hypnotherapy31
Interpersonal therapy31
Narrative exposure therapy32
Psychodynamic therapy31
Stress inoculation training31

Eating disorders: Bulimia nervosa

Cognitive-behavioural therapy33,34
Emotional and social mind training35
Focal psychotherapy36,37
Hypnobehavioural therapy38
Integrative cognitive-affective therapy39
Interpersonal therapy40,41,42

Eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa

Psychotherapy is an effective treatment and research does not support any one approach over another for adults43

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (exposure and ritual prevention)44,45

Schizophrenia

Cognitive-behavioural therapy46,47
Family-focused therapy48,49
Acceptance and commitment therapy50**

* Note: Psychotherapies are listed alphabetically within each disorder; they are not ranked by effectiveness

** promising approach

 

 
About the author

Karolina is a PhD student in Counselling Psychology at UBC and recently completed the CIHR/MSFHR* Science Policy Fellowship at the BC Ministry of Health. Her work intersects clinical practice, academic research and public policy. She specializes in eating disorders and in psychotherapy research, and supports broad access to psychotherapeutic treatments for mental health problems

*Canadian Institutes of Health / Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research

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