An Impotent Approach to Psychological Therapy (IAPT)

there is no evidence that routine psychological therapy, as delivered in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme either, resurrects a person or  returns them to their best functioning. As such IAPT is impotent.

Most of those entering the IAPT programme undergo low intensity cognitive behaviour therapy (LICBT). This latter involves a reduction of the multifaceted protocols from randomised controlled trials to single elements of those protocols eg avoidance or cognitive restructuring, in the belief that this may resolve client’s difficulties. But over a decade on, there is no evidence that this minimalist approach makes a real-world difference.  It is still unknown ‘what, if any, low intensity intervention works with whom?’. 

The problem with reductionism is that it fails to acknowledge that  the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The multifaceted CBT protocols distilled for randomised control trials likely work because of the synergistic interactions of components, delivered by a particular type of agent (therapist). Simply providing ‘an agent’ or ‘a technique’ is not evidence based.

A recent debate in the Journal Psychological Medicine, has focused around a paper by Read and Moncrief (2022)Moncrieff, J., & Read, J. (2022).[ Messing about with the brain: A response to commentaries on ‘Depression: Why electricity and drugs are not the answer’. Psychological Medicine, 1-2. doi:10.1017/S0033291722001088] highlighting the problem of reductionism when applied to antidepressants and ECT. Both treatments are based on the postulate that there is particular dysfunction in the brain largely responsible for depression, which these intervention rectify. However the search for such an organic deficit has been unsuccessful. These authors point that such interventions are no more effective than enhanced placebo for depression.  

Interestingly Read and Moncrief (2022) pin their hopes on psychological therapies by appealing to the results of randomised controlled trials of CBT for depression. However they are over-stepping the mark. The routinely provided CBT by IAPT has none of the hallmarks of CBT in the trials: the dosage of sessions is sub-therapeutic, no fidelity checks have been conducted to check that individuals actually receive appropriate CBT, there have been no independent assessors of outcome.

In their paper Read and Moncrief (2022) were quite specific about the population they were addressing ‘depressed patients’ but there is no such specificity about the populations treated in routine practice. IAPT clinicians do not make reliable diagnoses, (albeit that they have the temerity to ascribe a diagnostic code). Whilst it is comparatively easy to guarantee that an antidepressant or ECT has been administered, guaranteeing that an appropriate CBT protocol has been imparted, requires independent fidelity checks. No such checks have been applied to IAPT’s ministrations. Read and Moncrief (2022) may well be right, that psychological therapy is the best hope, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Currently IAPT is impotent.

Dr Mike Scott

Has Routinely Collected Outcome Data Assisted In Answering, ‘What Works For Whom?’


Over 50 years ago Paul (1967) asked the fundamental question for psychotherapy “What treatment, by whom, is most effective for this in- dividual with that specific problem, under which set of circumstances” (Paul, 1967, p .111). The proud boast of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service is of a million referrals a year, with test results for 90% of treatment sessions [IAPT Manual 2019]. But despite the quantity of data IAPT has amassed over the last 14 years, it has been of no help to clinicians in answering this key question. It has simply been an added stress.

What is the function of the IAPT data? Is it to simply bamboozle paymasters NHS England/Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs)? Perhaps it is to improve the practice of IAPT staff? Even if this latter were the case, there is no evidence that this translates into an improved outcome for clients that they would recognise.

The irrelevance of the IAPT data set, can be gauged by inspecting the table below:



Characteristics of the client

Specificity of the Problem

Specificity of Psychosocial Functioning

There is no treatment typology within the service. Simply a claim that most clients get CBT in varying doses.

The service distinguishes deliverers of low and high intensity. But clinicians training varies enormously from clinical psychologists with Ph.Ds  to recent graduates who have done voluntary work.

Clients are not distinguished in terms of whether they may or not have a personality disorder or a neuro developmental problem.

The service has no typology of problems. It does not make diagnoses so cannot specify disorders, albeit that it allocates a diagnostic codes.

There is no framework within which to specify level of functioning

With IAPT’s data there are fuzzies in every column of Paul’s framework,  leaving its’ clinicians rudderless.


Dr Mike Scott

Paul, G. L. (1967). Outcome research in psychotherapy. Journal

of Consulting Psychology, 31, 109–118.


A Gentler Approach to Fergal Keane’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Last night the BBC broadcast the experiences of its’ intrepid reporter, Fergal Keane, in battling with PTSD and alcohol. He has performed an invaluable service in normalising responses to extreme trauma. In the program he described being sometimes wiped out for days after a session of EMDR. Fergal showed great fortitude in continuing with such treatment. But it raises the question the question of how many others would persist? Particularly if they were not attending an exalted Private Hospital. 

Unfortunately the treatment that he had had  is predicated on the assumption that he needs to confront  all the horrors that he experienced in different lands.  Fergal returns to Rwanda and relives the smells and sights of extreme traumas. He feels guilty that he left Rwanda in the first place. Fergal is annoyed with himself that he left a hotspot in Ukraine at the beginning of the current conflict. In the program he is reunited with an adult from Rwanda who as an older child escaped under a blanket hidden by younger children. He is amazed that  she has not suffered his debility. De facto she has not seen her traumatic memory as relevant to her day-to-day functioning in the UK, but works in mental health. The key point I make in ‘Personalising Trauma Treatment: Reframing and Reimagining’ Routledge 2022 is that traumas only need to be confronted in the sense of addressing their relevance for today. Thus this lady might well write to Priti Patel about the obscenity of routing refugees to Rwanda, whilst not letting the traumatic memory be her central window through which she views the world.

In the programme the EMDR therapist is seen trying to replace Fergal’s thought ‘I am going to die’ whilst under a mortar attack in Lebanon, with the installation of a positive thought ‘I survived’. But this replacement is unnecessary, more parsimoniously it could  have been pointed out that he made a negative prediction and was wrong and may have developed a penchant for making negative predictions that turn out to be wrong. He would be advised to have second thoughts when he makes negative predictions or damns himself.  Fergal appears to believe that he has to be successful in his endeavours encountering horrors rather than just do what he can. He berates himself  for returning to war zones but I think he’s simply trying to ensure that horrors don’t have the last word – a noble task if ever there was one!

The programme featured groups for survivors and whilst they are useful, groups to resolve PTSD appear not to be effective. Interestingly one group member highlighted the problem with a sequential approach to PTSD treatment, an insistence that drink problems is sorted 1st before PTSD. People want treatment for all their conditions now. 


Dr Mike Scott

Exaggeratedly Negative Beliefs Perpetuate LTCs and MUS?

This is answered resoundingly in the affirmative and prescriptively in a just published book ‘CBT for Long-Term Conditions and Medically Unexplained Symptoms’ by Philip Kinsella and Helen Moya (Routledge 2022). But the book represents a triumph of ideology over evidence. It carefully avoids any consideration of studies that challenge its modus operandi.  The take home message is

With evangelistic fervour these authors proclaim on P16 For the typical cognitive  behavioural therapists it’s not necessary to be fully understanding of the debates around medically unexplained symptoms it’s more helpful to be aware of what the contributing factors are how to recognise and consider them and how to consider whether they are relevant to current problems’.

The reader is not informed of the details of the debate or the range of opinion.

There is no mention of:

  1. The Editorial in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2021 hDttOpsI://1d0o.i1.o1r7g/71/01.13157971/103539210151302318103482042 The ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ syndrome concept and the cognitive-behavioural treatment model’  that I and others wrote. In this paper we explored the validity of the MUS construct and the proposed treatment model.
  2. A 2020 paper in BMC Psychology by Keith Geraghty and I [Geraghty, K., & Scott, M. J. (2020)] Treating medically unexplained symptoms via improving access to psychological therapy (IAPT): major limitations identified]. BMC psychology, 8(1), 13.]  in which we identifiedan unproven treatment rationale, a weak and contested evidence-base, biases in treatment promotion, exaggeration of recovery claims, under- reporting of drop-out rates, and a significant risk of misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment.
  3. The study by [ Serfaty et al (2019)] of treating depressed cancer patients. In this study patients were given CBT by IAPT staff in addition to treatment as usual (TAU) and the results compared with TAU alone. Whether the outcome measure was the PHQ9 or Beck Depression inventory there was no difference in outcome. Serfaty et al add ‘our results suggest that resources for a relatively costly therapy such as IAPT-delivered CBT should not be considered as a first-line treatment for depression in advanced cancer. Indeed, these findings raise important questions about the need to further evaluate the use of IAPT for people with comorbid severe illness’.

Kinsella and Moya (2022) operate with a confirmatory bias, searching out studies that support their position and ignoring those that do not.


When research findings are presented they are not contextualised, for  the Liu et al (2019) meta analysis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders is cited by Kinsella and Moya (2022) and they report their broad conclusion that CBT is effective for somatoform disorders and medically unexplained symptoms. But fail to state that these authors concluded  that          

‘the overall quality of evidence is relatively low due to a high risk of bias with lack of blinding of the participants, therapists, and outcome assessors’. Further 12 of the 15 studies assessed patients using a ‘gold standard’ standardised diagnostic interview these are not used in IAPT making the generalisation from the studies problematic. None of the studies involved an active comparator in which a credible therapy rationale was given, thus there is no evidence that any effect of the CBT is specific to the CBT. Self-report outcome measure scores were used, these are likely to be subject to demand characteristics when people have invested time and energy undergoing treatment. There was no determination of whether the treatment made a real world difference to patients lives nor of how enduring such change was. 

No mention that the RCTs are of patients who find it acceptable to go for psychological treatment of their MUS, the likelihood is that many find it simply unacceptable to take this pathway. Thus the results of the RCTs may not generalise to all patients with MUS.

 A Gross Violation of Transparency

In our 2020 paper [Geraghty, K., & Scott, M. J. (2020). Treating medically unexplained symptoms via improving access to psychological therapy (IAPT): major limitations identified. BMC psychology, 8(1), 13.] we wrotepatients should be fully informed of the rationale behind psychotherapy, before agreeing to take part’

Kinsella and Moya take no heed of this and write in Chapter 14 identifying and helping patients who are fearful of recovery

page 180-1 ‘This phenomena is delicate Which may be conscious or out of awareness If there is a lot of resistance and and hostility and the general sense that the patient will be unable to contemplate a formulation that includes fear of recovery then it would be better to hold back…. If the formulation is not shared it can still be used by the therapist to guide their interventions…. Sometimes however one gets a sense of the reinforces for being nil being so strong or the fear of recovery being so powerful that therapeutic progress can’t be made for example if there’s a very attentive spouse a generous pay benefits payment under strong fear of going back into the old situation that triggered the symptoms then there is little of the therapist can do to overcome this a possible step by step approach to this problem is as follows’

Whatever happened to transparency and openness as a pre-condition for CBT?


CBT Treatments Bereft of An Evidence Base 

Somatoform Disorders They fail to mention that the DSM-5 dropped the construct of MUS, absenting if from the definition of somatic symptom disorder. None of the CBT studies of somatoform disorders included in the Cochrane review of 2014 involved independent blind assessors and in the only comparison with an active placebo (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) there was no difference  in outcome. Cochrane concluded that the quality of the evidence in the reviewed studies was weak. Whether or not IAPT therapists do not use a standardised diagnostic interview to determine the presence of a somatoform disorder, so there is no sound foundation for the proposed interventions.

Chronic Pain  In 2021 NICE published guidance on the management of chronic pain Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: assessment of all chronic pain and management of chronic primary pain They made a recommendations to consider CBT for chronic pain rather than make a stronger recommendation to offer CBT because the evidence was not of high quality. Most of the evidence showed that CBT for pain improved quality of life for people with chronic primary pain. A consistent benefit was not demonstrated in other outcomes

ME/CFS In 2021 NICE published guidance on the management of this condition ‘The committee wanted to highlight that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has sometimes been assumed to be a cure for ME/CFS. However, it should only be offered to support people who live with ME/CFS to manage their symptoms, improve their functioning and reduce the distress associated with having a chronic illness’. So that clients should be informed at the outset that the scope of CBT is limited. Further NICE adopts a different theoretical base to that of CBT therapists working in this area, it does not assume people have ‘abnormal’ illness beliefs and behaviours as an underlying cause of their ME/CFS, but recognises that thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiology interact with each other. No mention of this in the said volume. 

ME/CFS Clients May Have a ‘Fear of Recovery’ claim Kinsella and Moya (2021), I am lost for words

Dr Mike Scott





Low Intensity CBT Is Devoid of “Intelligent Scaffolding”

As a consequence there are no protocols for Psychological Well-being Practitioners (PWPs) to follow. The scaffolding is on the back of a lorry but nobody knows what to do with it. Restoration or rebuilding is unchecked by any blueprint. There is no typology of PWP treatments. It is made up as you go along.

Consider ‘CBT for long term conditions and medically unexplained symptoms’, a book by that name has just been published [Kinsella and Moya (2022) Routledge], these authors note that their protocol isn’t deliverable within the 6 hours or less of low intensity CBT, so they suggest have just one target, say depression and with subsequent multiple referrals a comprehensive protocol can be covered! But there is no evidence that this piecemeal approach works, no evidence that such brief Behavioural Activation for depression that they recommend (nor that the entirety of the package) makes a real world difference.   

The above considerations makes IAPT’s claim  that 50% of its customers get what they want,  ‘recovery’, incredulous. The true recovery rate in IAPT is around 10% Scott (2018) and is likely to be even less amongst those with long term conditions. Medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) is such a nebulous entity that it was dropped from the DSM. 


The randomised control trials of CBT for depression and the anxiety disorders, conducted before the millennium, had fidelity checks built in to ensure that clinicians were doing what they were supposed to be doing.  For each diagnosed disorder, there were specific treatments targets and matching treatment strategies. With adherence, competence and outcome assessed independently. IAPT’s mantra has been that it is compliant with these NICE approved protocols. However no fidelity check  has ever been been applied to either IAPT’s  high-intensity service or its low intensity service. 

If builders behaved in such a cavalier manner they would soon be out of business, ‘never mind about the restoration of your house, we have built you a nice bungalow’. A year ago I had published a paper ‘Ensuring IAPT Does What It Says On The Tin’ but it has washed off the IAPT teflonocracy. 

Dr Mike Scott