The problems of generalising from CBT randomised controlled trials can be illustrated by examining the following just published study from Clark et al (2022):
All patients were referred by an Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service if they were thought to be suffering from social anxiety disorder(SAD). But following detailed diagnostic assessment only one half were found to be suffering from the disorder. Thus it seems likely that IAPT staff, left to their own devices, would have provided inappropriate treatment for one in two patients.
IAPT staff do not make assessments using standardised diagnostic interviews, so that there can be no certainty that the results of this, or any other credible randomised controlled trial, would translate into routine practice.
The three treatment clinicians involved in the trial involved were experienced, well known clinical psychologists, unlike the therapists in routine practice. It is unlikely the latter would achieve the same outcome as the former.
In the study internet delivered CBT and standard CBT were the active comparisons and the results set against a waiting list control condition. But patients on a waiting list do not expect to get better and this comparotor has therefore been termed a nocebo. Given such able clinicians, it is possible that, if they had provided an alternative treatment with a credible rationale e.g ‘managing shyness/better mixing’ with equal attention the results would not have been appreciably different. The chances of this are increased by Clark et al (2022) finding that many of the standard components of the original CBT, such as accompanying the patient to social experiments were found to be redundant.
The study authors were evaluating, the computerised CBT program that they had developed. But no mention that the study requires independent replication because of the possibility of allegiance bias. Interestingly the authors report no conflict of interest.
The study required patients to have internet access and almost two thirds had higher education. The results may not be applicable in forgotten towns.
Patients were required to have SAD as their main problem, but patients typically see themselves as having a range of difficulties and want treatment for all. In this study 30% were found to be suffering from depression. But strangely, overall the pre-treatment mean on the PHQ9 was below the cut off of 10 usually used to denote a case of depression. Further this score is much lower than the initial mean of PHQ9 scores in the IAPT population. This creates doubts about the level of functional impairment in this population.
On the surface the study results are remarkable with 70%+ recovering from SAD and avoidant personality disorder. But the primary outcome measure was a composite of loss of diagnostic status and achieving below cut-off scores on several SAD self-report measures. There could be no certainty that the components of the composite were equally important to each patient, nor that the frequencies of say loss of diagnostic status and below cut off scores matched. The hazards of using composites has been highlighted by McCoy (2018).
Patients see recovery as being free of a disorder for a meaningful length of time. Given that persistent SAD is defined in the DSM as having the disorder for at least 6months. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that a primary outcome measure should have been being free of SAD for at least 6 months. This would have been a real world change.
This study is a salutary tale about the marketing of CBT – the takeaway message in the title is that the cost of one intervention(internet CBT) is half the cost of standard CBT. This is not to say that CBT is not of limited utility with depression and the anxiety disorders (including OCD and PTSD) but we need to assess what is of real world importance to the patient.
Maybe the antidepressants and/or psychological therapy are not making a real-world difference? Is it more likely than not, that one or other of these treatments works? I do not think that I could prove either to a Court’s satisfaction. Attempts to deliver them are taking a terrible toll, with a focus on Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) rather than the client’s story. Taking these treatments in turn:
Antidepressants. There has been a doubling of the prescription of antidepressants from 2006 to 2016, followed by increases in the prescription of antidepressants for 6 years [BBC News, July 9th 2022]. The BBC News confidently asserted that a major study proved antidepressants work, citing a link to a study published by Cipriani et al in (2018) in the Lancet. But it was only in a footnote that the BBC reporter acknowledged that the meta analysis covered, predominantly studies that looked at the effects of taking the medication for 8 weeks. There is no evidence that antidepressants alter the course of a persons mental health. Journalists like to give a human angle, and so the BBC presented an individual who had benefitted from antidepressants. But equally, I could have furnished an example of a guy I saw recently with depression as a consequence of being unable to do his manual job, because of a physical injury, who has been prescribed various SSRI’s and he has lost his libido, with a deleterious effect on his long term relationship and no loss of diagnostic status. One cannot rely on anecdotes to bolster the claim for either antidepressants or psychological therapy.
Psychological Therapy. Billions of £’s have been spent on the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Programme over the last decade. But there has been no publicly funded independent audit of IAPT. Why? Vested interests and a deep desire to believe that antidepressants and IAPT ‘must’ be making a difference. I examined the effectiveness of CBT in routine practice for 90 IAPT clients in the course of my work as an Expert Witness to the Court Scott (2018) and found that only the tip of the iceberg recovered (i.e lost their diagnostic status) using a ‘gold standard’ semi-structured interview. Further it mattered not whether they were treated before or after their personal injury. It has been said that human beings can only take so much reality, if so, following the scientific edict to ‘follow the data’ is likely to prove more aspirational than actual.
I cannot see any Expert Witness clearing an, on the balance of probability threshold, with regard to either of these interventions, as delivered in routine practice, in a British Court.
despite the fact that the main provider of psychological services, the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service is ‘An Abject Failure’ https://www.madinamerica.com/2022/06/uk-iapt-abject-failure/. It is all about cost, with no regard for evidence. It is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (June 29th) that clients are offered 11 possible interventions for depression, presenting the least costly first, guided self-help, group cognitive behavioural therapy (8 sessions) progressing up to the 11th option, short term psychodynamic psychotherapy. With Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) providing the assessment and the least costly interventions. But PWPs are not trained therapists and the IAPT Manual states that its’ employees do not make diagnoses and they are not trained to diagnose. Yet bizarrely NICE states that assessors must be competent to make a reliable assessment of depression! A pig’s ear of monumental proportions.
There is no empirical evidence that 8 sessions of group CBT delivered by PWPs makes a real world difference to client’s lives as assessed by a blind assessor. Nor that the recommended 8 sessions of individual CBT for depression, presumably delivered by a high intensity therapists, constitutes a therapeutic dose of treatment.
The revision of the Draft Nice Guidance on Depression https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng222 now recommends a stepped care approach to depression and sees Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners as contributing to treatment. This has brought a ‘hurrah’ from BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy), as it is exactly what they lobbied for https://babcp.com/About/News-Press/Revised-NICE-Guideline-on-Depression-in-Adults post the Draft guidelines. Dr Andrew Beck the BABCP President proclaims in the press release ‘the guidedInes highlight the amazing value of PWPs’. In addition antidepressants and CBT in combination are seen as the treatment choice for severe depression.
But these recommendations and changes are eminence-based not evidence-based. A paper published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research last year by Bartova et al (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2021.06.028 showed a 25% response rate for those who had antidepressants and manual-driven psychotherapy (mostly CBT), no better than antidepressants alone. This compares with a 31% response rate in those given a placebo Rutherford and Roose (2013) https://doi.org/10.1176%2Fappi.ajp.2012.12040474
Before BABCP issued the press release, I raised the following issues with its’ author Professor Reynolds:
I can find no randomised control trials of low intensity interventions that are methodologically robust enough to lead to the conclusion that such interventions should be the initial treatment of choice for less severe depression.
I can find no evidence that as a result of stepped care, the trajectory of clients with depression Is meaningfully better than if they were not treated in a stepped care model.
There was criticism of the initial draft for the ‘marginalising and undervaluing of PWPS’. However, it appears that under pressure from BABCP, PWPS are now to be lauded. But there is an absence of evidence of what PWP treatment works for whom and in what circumstances. As such their interventions are not evidence- based. Further they are not psychological therapists.
NICE have apparently indicated that the IAPT database may be used to inform the next set of guidelines. But this database tells us nothing of the course of any client’s disorder as the service does not make diagnoses or engage in long-term follow up.
I asked that my dissent from BABCPs press release be publicly noted, and was told simply that it would be passed to the BABCP Board. At the same time the comments of IAPTs lead, Professor Clark. on the importance of including relapse prevention in treatments, would be included in the press release and it was. An in-group clearly operates. I am reminded that when I submitted an article to the BABCP comic, CBT Today on IAPT, the article was rejected not by the editor but by the past (Prof Salkovskis) and current (Dr Andrew Beck) Presidents of BABCP. The matter was never addressed by the Board despite an assurance from Dr Beck. If ever there was a clique. Unholy alliances rule.
from ‘Mad In America’ https://www.madinamerica.com/2022/06/uk-iapt-abject-failure/
Dr Michael J Scott Ph.D
In 2012, an editorial in the prestigious journal Nature claimed that the UK’s IAPT Service is “world-beating”—meaning that the service is the world’s best for treating mental health concerns. Now that 10 years have passed, it’s clear that this was not true. Despite the hype, the IAPT is hardly “world-beating.” In fact, it is a doubtful model for other countries to follow.
The IAPT (“Improving Access to Psychological Therapies”) was created in 2008 and fully funded by the UK government (though restricted to provision only in England). The program claims to provide evidence-based psychological treatment, most commonly in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy. It was initially focused on patients with depression and anxiety disorder diagnoses, but its scope has been gradually expanded to include the psychological treatment of long-term physical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome.
Patients either self-refer (at no cost) or are referred to the IAPT by their primary care physician/general practitioner. Clients are initially assessed during a 30-minute telephone conversation by a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) who is not an accredited therapist and is not trained to diagnose. IAPT clients initially receive low-intensity CBT (six hours or less of therapy contact) delivered by a PWP. If they are deemed not to have responded to this, on the basis of a psychometric test, they can be “stepped up” to high-intensity CBT delivered by an accredited psychological therapist.
How Well Is the IAPT Doing?
Proponents of the IAPT cite its outcomes for the clients who complete their treatment sessions—but over half of IAPT clients don’t even attend two sessions. The response of the IAPT to this massive disengagement with the service—clients “voting with their feet,” as it were—is currently to offer training to its staff to “streamline” matters by encouraging them to use a computer algorithm to decide which clients go where. This training, which was held on June 22, 2022, involves expert advice from the CEO of Limbic, an artificial intelligence Company. Thus, not only are IAPT staff to be distracted by clients having to complete psychometric tests at each encounter, but now additionally by the administration of the computer algorithm.
Yet Limbic claims it is “an AI assistant for clinical assessments in IAPT—improving access, reducing costs and freeing up staff time.” Where is the independent evidence for this? What clients really want is to be listened to, but there is little chance of this any time soon. Conquering disengagement in this manner is a forlorn hope.
IAPT’s 2019 manual states that IAPT staff do not make a diagnosis. However, the treatment recommendations of NICE (the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) are explicitly tied to a taxonomy of specific treatments for identified disorders (largely, diagnosis-specific variations on CBT). IAPT legitimises itself by a claim to be NICE compliant, but how could they be if they don’t make diagnoses? How can they follow NICE’s specific treatment guidelines without first assessing which condition they are treating?
Whilst the IAPT’s claim to be NICE-compliant might be music to the ears of NHS England and clinical commissioning groups, it is simply not true. No independent fidelity checks have ever have been made on IAPT’s ministrations. IAPT allegedly provides specific CBT protocols for different disorders, but it has provided no evidence that it does this.
In no independent audit of IAPT, have clients been asked “are you back to your usual self since this treatment?” This is a goal that is meaningful to the client—with the possible supplementary question, “for how long have you been back to your usual self?” In papers published by IAPT staff, no such real-world outcome measures have ever been used. Instead, reliance has been placed on changes in psychometric test scores. Yet without a control group, it’s impossible to know whether these changes would have occurred with passage of time anyway. After all, people present to psychological treatment at their worst, and at any other time, they are likely to score better. In statistics, this principle is known as regression to the mean, and it is vital to account for this effect.
Further, the client knows his/her therapist sees their completed questionnaire, pushing them to respond more positively. A client may also not want to endorse negative responses on the questionnaire because it would mean acknowledging that they have wasted their time in therapy. These are known issues with self-report measures that are commonly cited as important limitations in research studies.
Finally, the questionnaire results also give no indication of whether any improvement has lasted for a period that the client would regard as meaningful, such as eight weeks or (hopefully) more.
In an era of personalised medicine, it is essential that the voice of the client is heard. It is an almost ubiquitous failure of studies to employ a primary outcome measure that a client can identify with—known as patient-centred outcomes. Perhaps the nearest proxy is loss of diagnostic status (full recovery) determined by an independent assessor. The burden of proof rests on providers of services to demonstrate that their treatments are making an important difference to a client’s life in a way that is clearly recognisable to the client. IAPT has not cleared this evidential bar.
Use of an algorithm is not incompatible with a clinician operating on a knowledge base of what works for whom. But it has to be first demonstrated that the former constitutes added value over the latter. The burden of proof is on AI advocates to demonstrate its relevance in a particular context. This cannot be done by a company with a vested interest in AI.
It is perfectly possible that using two systems, an algorithm and clinical judgement, might create confusion. Should an IAPT client not fare well (for example, if a client dies by suicide) when treated under such a dual system, could IAPT convince a court, on the balance of probability (the UK benchmark in personal injury cases), that its approach was evidence-based? After all, an AI approach is not something that NICE has recommended—so it flies in the face of the guidelines. Traditionally, courts are swayed by eminence-based evidence (such as the word of authority figures like psychiatrists), but they have become more aware (at least in the UK) of the perils of unbridled clinical judgement.
Inadequacies of IAPT’s Chosen Metric
IAPT’s chosen metric is a change in score on two psychometric tests. Clients are deemed to have responded if on the PHQ-9 (a measure of the severity of depression) their test score has gone from above 10 to below 10 with treatment, with a difference of at least 6 points, and if on the GAD 7 (a measure of the severity of generalised anxiety disorder) their score has gone from above 8 to below 8 with treatment, with a difference of at least 4 points. This approach has numerous deficiencies:
It is not known whether the completer of these two measures was actually suffering from depression or generalised anxiety disorder, because IAPT clinicians do not make diagnoses. Further, it is not known whether either of these “conditions” was the disorder that was causing most impairment in functioning.
When test results are observable by the treating clinician, clients may wish to be polite and relay a lower score, particularly as they do not want to feel that they have wasted their time in therapy.
No attention control comparator: Changes in test scores are meaningless unless there is a comparator group who have received the same attention and a credible rationale. It’s unclear whether the therapy resulted in the improvement, or if the client would have improved with a “placebo” therapy (simply receiving professional “attention” without CBT techniques).
Regression to the mean: Clients typically present at their worst, so with the mere passage of time they will score more modestly.
The vagaries of a minimally important difference (MID) in a score: MIDS are established by statistical comparisons between an “ill” and “well” group, but they do not necessarily indicate clinically important difference. They also fail to address the client’s perception and there is no personalisation of treatment outcome. Clients are given no voice.
Last year about a third of referrals (30.1%) to the IAPT service did not access it. Of those who accessed the service over a third (38%) had just one treatment session. Thus, by the start of the IAPT race over half of people (57%) have not engaged in treatment (as defined by IAPT’s metric of attending two or more sessions). If these results applied to a physiotherapy service it would raise serious doubts about the suitability of the service! Why then does the UK National Audit Office studiously avoid scrutiny of IAPT, which costs the taxpayer over £1 billion a year?
Sub-Therapeutic Dose and Treatment Outcomes
Of those who engaged in IAPT, the average number of sessions was 7.5, which is well below the 12 to 20 sessions that NICE recommends for depression and anxiety disorders (IAPT’s primary targets). Are we to believe that IAPT’s clinicians are so skilled that they can achieve recovery with only half the dosage of therapy as that delivered by therapists in the randomised controlled trials of CBT for depression and the anxiety disorders?
The benchmark set by trials of therapy as a treatment for these conditions is that at least 50% must “recover” (no longer meet criteria for a diagnosis). But there is no evidence that IAPT has achieved this. My own research suggests that only the tip of the iceberg recover.
In my capacity as an Expert Witness to the Court, I examined 90 IAPT clients who had been through the service either before or after the personal injury. Only 9.2% of subjects lost their and diagnostic status, as assessed using the “gold standard” SCID interview. It mattered not whether subjects were assessed before or after their personal injury. (These findings are in need of replication by clinicians independent of IAPT with a non-litigant population.)
IAPT appears not to so much follow the data, but to follow funding opportunities. It has branched out into territory were angels fear to tread: Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS). MUS is an umbrella term embracing conditions as diverse as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. IAPT’s contention is that exaggerated negative beliefs about symptoms, and maladaptive behaviours (e.g., avoidance), play a pivotal role in the maintenance of symptoms in these conditions. The therapeutic task, as they see it, is to then to modify these cognitions and behaviours.
What happens if a client protests that they have valid medical symptoms? Well, IAPT clinicians are taught not to openly disagree and not to say ‘it is all in your mind’. But to nevertheless continue to focuss on the ‘exaggerations in beliefs and avoidance behaviours’, so much for honesty.
Along with Keith Geraghty from the University of Manchester, I have published a critique of this sojourn. We identified a series of seven core problems and failings of the IAPT, including an 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. We concluded that psychotherapy should not become the default option when patients have “medically unexplained symptoms.”
The term “medically unexplained symptoms” should be written in lowercase to avoid conveying the impression that a meaningful homogenous entity is being described. The term should not enter the taxonomy of disorders. Importantly, even the DSM-5 has shunned recourse to the term. But unfortunately, IAPT only pays lip service to the standard diagnostic criteria.
Big Pharma and IAPT
Whilst some large pharmaceutical companies have greatly served the public good with regard to COVID, their performance with regard to psychotropic drugs is much less impressive. Researchers like Read and Moncrieff pin their hopes on the efficacy of CBT demonstrated in randomised controlled trials, but make no mention that CBT as delivered in routine practice bears little relationship to the protocols utilised in RCTs. Just as the claims of pharmaceutical companies require critical appraisal so too does the UK IAPT service.
In an article in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, I explained what the IAPT needs to do to get back on track. I noted that in their published papers, IAPT staff do not declare their allegiances and indeed state that they have no conflict of interest! This dishonesty needs to change. I suggested that there is a need for IAPT to prove their case using the standards of proof that are required in other areas of medicine. To this effect, they cannot simply claim that they deliver evidence-based treatment—there has to be documented evidence for it that would be persuasive to an independent observer. The IAPT service has to demonstrate that it provides an added value over someone attending an advice centre or counselling service. Yet the IAPT has yet to demonstrate that it makes an important enough difference to clients’ lives that they would recognise it.
This catalogue of omissions may create a sense of déjà vu for those who have followed the machinations of Big Pharma with regards to mental health. Unfortunately, there has only been a deafening silence from the IAPT regarding my critique.
The impetus for the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service was derived from a) economic considerations and b) an assertion that the positive results of randomised controlled trials of, primarily CBT, for depression and the anxiety disorders would be realised in routine practise.
In 2006 the Centre for Economic Performance stated that “the total loss of output due to depression and chronic anxiety is some £12 billion a year-1% of our total national income ”. The contention was that investment in psychological therapy would pay for itself by a reduction in such costs. But currently IAPT costs over £1 billion a year, where is the evidence of a substantial reduction in the loss of output? Where is the evidence that IAPT constitutes a no-cost talk therapy?
Poor Performance at the Coal-Face
In the randomised controlled trials on average 50% of clients lost their diagnostic status as assessed by independent blind assessors. But no such unbiased assessors have ever gauged the impact of IAPT’s ministrations. IAPT has always marked its own homework. Rather than the claimed recovery rate of 50%, the best available evidence suggests that only the tip of the iceberg recover, Scott (2018).
Each myth means that the other is not carefully examined and IAPT advocates can deftly switch the focus from one to the other under critical scrutiny – a politician’s dream.
Psychological Therapy – a history of exaggerated claims
T.S Eliot wrote ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ this applies particularly to looking at the effects of mental heath treatment. In 1751 the scientist and Quaker, Benjamin Franklin petitioned the Pennsylvania colonial assembly for funds to build a hospital on the grounds that ‘it has been found , by the experience of many years, that above two thirds of the Mad People received into the Bethlem Hospital in England and there treated properly , have been perfectly cured’. He was reiterating claims made in published books by English doctors. Fast forward over 260 years, to 2012 and an editorial in the prestigous journal Nature declares IAPT ‘represents a world-beating standard thanks to the scale of its implementation and the validation of its treatments’ (p. 473)’. A decade later, NHS England echoes this declaring ‘the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme began in 2008 and has transformed the treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression in England. IAPT is widely-recognised as the most ambitious programme of talking therapies in the world and in the past year alone more than one million people accessed IAPT services for help to overcome their depression and anxiety, and better manage their mental health’ and recommends the IAPT Manual (2021). In 2019, Pickersgill examined the proliferation of IAPT by canvassing the views of professionals and professional bodies, noting that IAPT fellow-travellers were in the ascendancy. But in this evangelisation for the in vogue psychological interventions nobody has asked the consumer or considered the operation of vested interests.
The Absence of Open Discussion
Psychological disorders are ubiquitous and can negatively impact the course of coexisting physical conditions. Since the days of Benjamin Franklin, UK data on mental health treatment, has been used to foster the belief that UK treatments are a ‘world beater’. But independent evidence to support this contention is lacking. There is not just a gap between the psychological treatments delivered in randomised controlled trials and what comes to pass in routine psychological services, such as the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Programme (IAPT) service, but a chasm. Efforts to have a meaningful debate on the issue have been met with a deafening silence. In the silence, the scope of psychological treatments has gradually been expanded, beyond the initial focus of depression and the anxiety disorders to include patients with long term physical conditions – a psychological imperialism. The power-holders definition of the outcome of routine psychological treatment reigns.
Pickersgill M. (2019). Access, accountability, and the proliferation of psychological therapy: On the introduction of the IAPT initiative and the transformation of mental healthcare. Social studies of science, 49(4), 627–650. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312719834070
Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) deliver the smallest dose of psychological interventions (low intensity CBT), less than 6 hours of contact per client (Shafran 2021). Making it cheaper than high intensity CBT. But there is little evidence that the PWPs ministrations make a difference the client would recognise. There are no randomised controlled trials of high or moderate quality (Cochrane Grade) that attest to low intensity CBTs efficacy. The PWPs are not psychological therapists, as such, most IAPT clients do not receive psychological therapy. The name IAPT, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies is therefore an example of doublethink. Here we have a classic example of false economy.
Low intensity CBT is intended to be the first step for those suffering from depression and the anxiety disorders, with PTSD and OCD clients going straight to high intensity interventions. Most clients first encounter low intensity CBT, should they not respond they are placed on a waiting list for high intensity CBT. In practice comparatively few, about 10%, are stepped up, but with wide regional variations.It is not so much stepped care as stopped care.
Implementation of the ‘stepped care’ model costs the taxpayer of over a £1bn a year. But there has been no independent evaluation of the package or its components. IAPT is the first ANGO (an autonomous non- governmental agency) funded by the government, as opposed to the intended and understood QUANGO – a quasi autonomous non-governmental agency. Perhaps the National Audit Office and MPs might care to explain why there has been this failure of governance?
‘Two thirds of GPs providing specialist mental health support beyond their competence’ this was the headline in Pulse, May 9th 2022. This has been brought about by NHS pressures. With 38% of consultations having a mental health element compared to 25% pre-Covid. But there is no evidence the patients have fared less well than if they had been referred to the Government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) business (or secondary care mental health services). In similar vein there is no evidence that those attending the Citizens Advice Bureau with mental health problems do any less well than those attending IAPT [http://www.cbtwatch.com/no-evidence-that-the-improving-access-to-psychological-therapies-iapt-service-does-any-better-than-contact-with-the-citizens-advice-bureaux-cabx]. It appears that IAPT is no better than an attention placebo.
Ideally IAPT would have been subjected to a randomised controlled trial in which clients were alternately assigned to the services ministrations and to a credible placebo intervention. With outcome gauged by blind assessors, using a standardised reliable diagnostic interview. But no such study has been forthcoming or seems likely to happen anytime soon. Though less than ideal comparisons can be made with the trajectory of attendees of GPs and Citizens Advice Bureaus.
The burden of proof is on IAPT to demonstrate that its’ staff have a competence beyond that of GP’s and Citizens Advice Bureau Workers, that makes a real world difference to client outcome. My own research [Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264] suggests that only the tip of the iceberg of IAPT clients recover .
GPs acknowledge the limits of their competence, IAPT staff do not, at least publicly. Unfortunately nobody holds them to account, they are a law unto themselves. We continue to throw away over a £1 billion a year on IAPT, with the National Audit Office, NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups showing a radical apathy about the matter.
Both of the main treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma focused cognitive behaviour therapy (T-FCBT) and eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR), postulate that arrested information processing lies at the heart of debility post trauma. The therapeutic task is therefore to elaborate the traumatic memory. But does the model stand up to close scrutiny?
What does arrested information-processing look like?
Is forced engagement with the traumatic memory, the only way forward, given that most people do not want to think about something horrible?
Is there evidence beyond reasonable doubt that a noxious treatment for post-trauma debility is necessary?
What happens when arrested information-processing is put under the microscope?
Consider that you have produced a one page document on your computer. You try to print it out, alas nothing! Various arrested information processing ‘bugs’ may have come into play. You may have forgotten to refill the paper tray. The cable at the rear of the computer may have become disconnected. With age the printer might now demand that it be a) unplugged from the mains b) the printer key depressed for 20 seconds with the paper tray out and c) the printer plugged in and the printer key depressed again. There would thus be very clear and demonstrable reasons as to why you have no printout.
But when a person is debilitated following an extreme trauma there is no such clarity. It may be asserted the extreme trauma caused the debility, but all that is known is is that debility followed a trauma. The temporal sequence does not necessarily signify causation. A failure by trauma focussed clinicians to specify the mechanisms by which arrested information-processing occurs, casts doubt that it has been operative. The injunction for trauma focused clinicians is to ‘elaborate’ the traumatic memory. Staying with the analogy, no amount of changing the contents of the one page document (elaboration) will result in a printout. Arrested information processing, in the context of trauma, sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions but is bereft of any actual detail. The evidential bar for the concept is set so low that it is possible to walk over it.
Just as the one page document is a creation, so to is the traumatic memory, but it differs in that every time the latter is retrieved it is different. It is rather like Alice in the above observation.
Any information encoded at the time of the trauma may be properly regarded as syntactic information, i.e information without any meaning – rather like being sent a text message that consisted simply of a number of symbols. A friend may at a later point give a meaning to the symbols but you may nevertheless conclude that it was a meaningless text. Importantly the meaning is subject to negotiation and is not located in a special place in the trauma itself. Plantinga, Oxford University Press (2011) says that it is essentially impossible to see how a material structure or event could have content in the way that a belief does.This takes us to a new and more useful model based on mental time travel [Scott (2022) Personalising Trauma Treatment: reframing and Reimagining. London: Routledge https://www.amazon.co.uk/Personalising-Trauma-Treatment-Reframing-Reimagining/dp/1032013125/ref=sr_1_1 crid=2T4OARM3EH4TB&keywords=personalising+trauma+treatment+paperback&qid=1653757479&sprefix=%2Caps%2C73&sr=8-1 ] and the axiom that it is not the trauma per se that is important but what it is taken to mean for today, that has significance.
The Utility and Effectiveness of Trauma-Focussed Interventions
It is true that with trauma focussed CBT or EMDR about 50% of those undergoing these treatments in randomised controlled trials fully recover from PTSD. However compliance with trauma-focussed protocols in routine practise is problematic, with only a half of patients loosely compliant with the homework [Scott and Stradling (1997) Journal of Traumatic Stress. Over 60% of veterans dropping out of trauma focussed interventions [ Maguen et al (2019) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.02.027]. Not buying into the treatment rationale for trauma focussed work is the biggest predictor of non-completion [ Kehle-Forbes et al (2022)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2022.104123].
it is possible that to the extent that these treatments do work they do so for reasons other than achieving ‘full processing of the traumatic memory’. More plausibly as a side effect of these interventions they learn experientially that the ‘war zone’ map of their personal world that they have employed since the trauma, leads nowhere and they revert to a pre-trauma map. Oftentimes the prime concern of a victim is not what did happen but what could/should have happened i.e it is not the trauma per se.
Resistance To A Paradigm Shift
Rather than re-examine the trauma-focussed paradigm the likelihood is that the movers and shakers in the CBT/EMDR world will either resolutely ignore this challenge or concentrate their firepower on the inappropriateness of the computer/printer analogy, without suggesting a more appropriate analogy. An essentially fundamentalist approach is taken to the potency of arrested-information processing. Heretics should at best be marginalised.
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 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/messing-about-with-the-brain-a-response-to-commentaries-on-depression-why-electricity-and-drugs-are-not-the-answer/C93997DBF4D174D9807D0F65BD994999] 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.
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