Simply Too Complex CBT!

abandon ‘what treatment works for what’ and you end up with a free for all of imagined complexity.

What Works for Whom?: A Critical Review of Psychotherapy Research

With stressed clinicians lost in a fog, arguing interminably about possible landmarks (formulations) for treatment. Not surprisingly the issue of ‘complexity’ now figures highly on IAPT’s list of workshops. Paradoxically formal IAPT training eskews trainees working with ‘complex cases’. IAPT specifies the importance of following the NICE guidelines but without a reliable procedure for determining what cases they do and importantly do not apply to.

The IAPT Courtroom

An obvious defence for IAPT workers failing to consistently obtain the 50% recovery rate is to contend that they were dealing with complex cases.

In rebuttal the Organisation can contend that complex cases are: ‘namely primary or comorbid psychosis, personality disorder, autism spectrum disorder, substance dependence, severe and/or treatment-relevant physical health conditions, and severe psychosocial difficulties Liness et al (2019) see link’ https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10608-018-9987-5 and that the clinicians case falls outside this definition. But in areas of high deprivation it is relatively easy to claim that a particular client falls within this definition of complexity e.g ongoing pain from an injury or associated with a condition such as MS, having to use a Foodbank.

Flexibility Within Fidelity As A Defence

Flexibility has to be constrained by fidelity, if it is not then arguments between clinicians and line managers/supervisors have no arbiter. The clinician will lose out simply because the line manager/ supervisor has more power, at its’ worst ‘my way or no way’.


If fidelity is safeguarded, then there are agreed issues/concerns that need to be addressed with a particular client. It also sets limits on the range of interventions (flexibility) that are permissible for those particular issues/ concerns. Without a twin focii on fidelity and flexibility the clinician is up a creek without a paddle. But a hostile work environment can nevertheless ignore or more commonly pay lip service to fidelity and flexibility – they need to be admitted to the IAPT courtroom for the sake of both clinicians and clients.

Clinicians and Constructive Dismissal

Nevertheless there is a vagueness about the debate of simplicity vs complexity, that could mean that an IAPT therapist is hounded from office, without the case being put to anything like a jury, with no procedures in place to ensure any transparency and accountability.

The Need To Rediscover A Biopsychosocial Model

But actually matters are nowhere as simple as this simple/complex distinction. Steve Stadling (1990) and I https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-and-cognitive-psychotherapy/article/group-cognitive-therapy-for-depression-produces-clinically-significant-reliable-change-in-communitybased-settings/ADFC2B6A2D2BBCCC37CD41820DFD5287

were involved in a randomised controlled trial of individual and group CBT for depression in Toxteth, Liverpool, and managed to make important lasting differences using Beck’s protocol for depression. But because we were using a biopsychosocial model I saw it as much a part of my work to say write a letter to a Housing Association for a client as conduct the CBT. Similarly many patients were prescribed antidepressants, again in keeping with a biopsychosocial model. This holistic approach to client’s problems appears to have been lost in IAPT’s fundamentalist translation of the randomised controlled trials. An alternative perspective is presented my trilogy of Simply Effective CBT books


Dr Mike Scott

CBT Is Overeaching Itself – Clients and Therapists Are The Likely Casualties

A re-examination of the evidence base for CBT, using published guidelines for the evaluation of randomised controlled trials [ Guidi et al (2018)], suggests that low intensity interventions and interventions for ME, long term physical conditions and psychosis are not evidence based. Such studies lack credibility either because of the abscence of blind outcome assessment or when blind assessment has been conducted the results have been negative. Further the number of blind credible trials supporting the efficacy of CBT for depression and anxiety disorders is about half the number of studies usually considered as evidence. Dissemination of CBT beyond the boundaries of an evidence base hampers finding real world solutions to a clients difficulties and will likely result in demoralisation of the latter and therapists. This casts doubt not only on the wisdom of IAPT’s expansion beyond depression and the anxiety disorders but the ethics of its’ treatment of staff.

An international team of Experts [Guidi et al (2018) see link below] have developed evaluation guidelines stipulating the need for blind independent assessment of psychological interventions, particularly when psychometric tests are the outcome measure.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/hizta38yqm4lfh3/Methodological%20Recommendations%20for%20Trials%20of%20Psychological%20Interventions.pdf?dl=0

The PACE trial for chronic fatigue syndrome was heavily criticised [ Edwards (2017)] because it relied on self-report measures of outcome without blind assessment, a methodology that is unacceptable in medicine and in the evaluation of pharmacological products see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1359105317700886

To my knowledge there are no blinded assessment of outcomes for any low intensity interventions. Efficacy has a way of disappearing when there is blinded assessment, for example Morrison et al (2018) conducted a blinded outcome assessment of CBT for schizophrenia and found no clinically meaningful difference, see link below:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/2jqwurf2z9ydyb7/Schizophrenia%20CBT%202018.pdf?dl=0

One other stipulation of the Guidi et al (2018) guidelines is that studies of an intervention should involve an active placebo, in order to ensure that any impact of treatment is not just due to raised expectations and attention. But more than 80% of trials in the anxiety disorders have used waiting list control groups [Cuijpers (2016)] as opposed to active placebos .

https://www.dropbox.com/s/d2tu2ymzp9it7v5/CBT%202016%20Cuijpers.pdf?dl=0

Carpenter et al’s (2018) , study of anxiety disorders see link below found that there were only 41 studies using an active placebo and in only two thirds of them was there a low risk of bias because outcome assessment was blinded. Thus though CBT was still regarded as efficacious, this number of studies spread across all the anxiety disorders does not make the case for CBT being irrefutable.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/js2bljurdwijxkf/Carpenter_et_al-2018-Depression_and_Anxiety%20%281%29.pdf?dl=0

As Zhu et al (2014), see link below, put it with regard to generalised anxiety disorder, the evidence for CBT is ‘strong but not definitive’. They point out that although the 12 randomised controlled trials they reviewed all had blind assessors, in 6 of them outcome was not based on the assessors assessment but on a self-report measure.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/cng09hehty9qo02/GAD%20Meta-analysis.pdf?dl=0

Of the 144 studies of depression, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder reviewed by Cuijpers et al (2016) only half (48.6%) had a blind outcome assessment,

https://www.dropbox.com/s/d2tu2ymzp9it7v5/CBT%202016%20Cuijpers.pdf?dl=0

Further Cuijpers et al (2016) found that the effects of CBT are small to moderate when the comparison condition is usual care or active placebo compared to a large effect size when the comparison is a waiting list control condition.

In view of Guidi et al’s (2018) strictures around the evaluation of randomised controlled trials, it is wholly inappropriate for IAPT to admonish its therapists for ‘poor performance’ based solely on a psychometric test. There are surely grounds here for a therapist to claim constructive dismissal.

Dr Mike Scott