I will never forget how, when I started working at the IAPT call-centre, I was stressed and rested my head for a few moments. I was interrupted by a “clinical psychologist” who in accusatory tone proclaimed that, “it does not seem that you are working”. The die it seems was cast. Not once in my 3 years as a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) have I felt that anyone at work cared for one another.
‘When I Want Your Opinion I’ll Give It To You’
Naively I thought that “psychological services” would be a haven of openness, not a venue as “hellish” as any other sales related job. Contentious issues were not allowed to be placed on the agenda at meetings. If I dared to bring up issues that mattered, the Managers would “have a word with me in private”. It felt like “The Twilight Zone” and “Twin Peaks”; you could feel something was not right, but everyone pretended that things were fine and that it was me who was the problem. If there was any issue with what I said, no one gently told me, instead they went straight to my manager. So, I always felt paranoid that whatever I say or do, may be reported.
I will never forget the moments where I would try to bring up a new approach or new knowledge only to be told “it is not in line with NICE and IAPT” and “do not read extra information because you will not need it”. A re-enactment of George Orwell’s 1984, rather than the delivery of a 21st Century psychological service. Worryingly this seems to be the norm in the NHS, with the frontline troops powerless.
What It Is Really Like At The Coal Face
The short end of it all is that being a PWP is very similar to run of the mill call-centre, telemarking and sales job. No matter what the average worker says “but we do a great service”, I feel they are a tad bit delusional. I do not blame them. To survive this job you either need to resort to trickery or delude yourself that you are doing something worthwhile. The latter group probably have a mortgage to pay. We are told what to say, how to say it, when to say it and constantly told “it’s all about the numbers/targets”. We also have a script, which is very similar to those phone contract customer service people. The hellish brilliance of IAPT is that if the targets are not reached, the organisation uses an attributional bias to blame the “practitioners”/miners and not the “system”/pit owners and fellow travellers.
The Re-Branding of What Doesn’t Work, Doesn’t Work
Pre-IAPT there were “mental health workers (MHWs)”, and the public had some idea of the discharge of this particular, professional role. But from 2008 MHWs became Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, leaving the public and professionals scratching their head as to what the designation might mean. Where PWPs to be regarded as professionals or not? Despite the inherent confusion, I followed my work’s advice to the letter: did the questionnaires, kept the original scores and ploughed onwards. However, what I noticed is that many clients (I dislike using the term patients because it doesn’t feel like we are official clinicians either) were finishing treatment or dropping out with “high scores”. It was not too long until I was interrogated for a below 50% recovery rate.
Jumping Through The Hoops of ‘Recovery’
The recovery rate of 50% is impossible unless one manipulates the numbers or manipulates the clients to be compliant. I guess, good old fashioned “sales tactics” (convincing people they need a product or that they are better than when they started). Of course, the Managers did not care. Safe to say, I found a crack in the system: since the powers all care about numbers, if you deliver the numbers, they will not question you. However, dare you dip below what is expected of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), then they are like bloodhounds searching for you. But there has never been a real world KPI that a client would recognise, such as being back to their old selves for at least 8 weeks after treatment. Instead clients are expected at each session to doodle on questionnaires in the prescence of the PWP and bizarrely, these are used as the metrics of recovery.
At the coal face, I can conceal, to a limited extent what I am doing from the powers that be and deliver something of benefit. I do not hound them for the questionnaires every single time because let us face it, that creates a major barrier in treatment. Also, we are not MDs or Clinical Psychologists that can diagnose. It is a joke when we have to collect the data because it is meaningless.
The issue then becomes that I did not feel like I was learning anything. All I was learning was how to manage office politics and be a better liar. One could apply for High Intensity Training but they still focus on targets, so, no thanks. Any person of good conscience will not last long in IAPT. If you have any issues as a worker with IAPT, they will say it is a “you” problem. I once mistakenly vented my frustrations with how they were doing things at a meeting. This resulted in evident displeasure and near the end the next meeting was told to “this is not a space to vent grievances”. If the clients and workers had a platform to vent their frustrations, I do not think IAPT would still be operational.
PWPs Ambassadors For A ‘Failed State’?
Working in IAPT is robotic: clicking tabs, ticking boxes and collecting numbers – a de-humanising experience. There is little to encourage anyone to become a PWP. In fairness I suppose, at least a personal level, I have survived lockdown financially. But the service has in effect been “cooking the books” and making the company look good. I fear for the mental health not only of the ambassadors but for that of clients past and to come.
I am off to other pastures, can you wonder at the turnover?
A 24% response rate combining the two, and manual driven psychotherapy conferred no added benefit Bartova et al (2021). In the podcast from Mad In America these findings are set against a 31% placebo response rate. Further no evidence that the interventions altered the course of a disorder, which is the prime objective of treatments for physical disorders. Rather the focus was on symptomatic relief. Articles covered in podcast include:
Pies and Dawson (2022) have today taken up the cudgel to attack the findings of Moncrieff et al (2002) that were the springboard for the podcast. But they are disingenuous in claiming that no one of academic credibility has ever suggested that low serotonin causes depression. For decades, at least in the UK this has been the dominant message given to patients, with the implication that they need antidepressants to restore the chemical imbalance. Pies and Dawson (2022) have recourse to a biopsychosocial model which posits interactions of thoughts, feelings, social factors and biology, in which will be found some biological factor that is of key importance in the development of depression and through which antidepressants will be found to work. But given the track record to date this seems unlikely and provides little basis for current pharmacological practice with the exception of the use of lithium.
In the Bartova et al (2021) study the therapists claimed that they were adhering to a manual driven psychotherapy protocol, but no fidelity checks were made. A similar scenario to the claim made by IAPT in the UK that it delivers CBT, but without any independent corroboration. It is I believe the case that CBT can make a real world difference for depression and the anxiety disorders if appropriately delivered.
When it is not using the latest evidence. An article in the Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, much lauded by the Editor of the Journal, highlights this. There was no review of the latest group CBT for PTSD outcome studies see Scott (2022) Personalising Trauma Treatment: Reframing and Reimagining London: Routledge. Instead the authors relied upon the conflicted, dated, recommendations of guideline producers. Guidelines are produced by Committee decisions with all the vagaries that entails, they are not the results of a systematic analysis of data. My book includes a review of group CBT outcome studies for PTSD (reproduced at the end of this blog), indicating the inferiority of a group approach.
In this study of group CBT for PTSD, the results of 3, 8 session (2hrs per session) group programmes are summarised by the treating IAPT workers. But no standardised diagnostic interview was used at any point, so it is unknown what proportion of people lost their diagnostic status for how long. Nor whether they were truly suffering from PTSD in the first place, making independent replication impossible. It is claimed that the treatment was given to those who ‘preferred’ group therapy but this is disingenuous. In practice people are offered more immediate treatment with a group or a long wait for individual therapy, whilst they may opt for the former, it is not a preference.
8 is The New Magic Number
The tail is wagging the dog, in that the authors have fitted in with the growing fetish for 8 sessions. Those who complete IAPT treatment typically have 7.5 sessions. Further NICE recommend, 8 group CBT therapy sessions for depression as the first line treatment for depression. But there is no empirical evidence that 8 sessions of anything makes a real-world difference. It is simply what the powers that be have decided to ration out. There is no indication of the mechanism of action of 8 sessions. If it is not possible to specify how a claimed result is achieved then the latter is suspect. BABCP has just celebrated its 50th birthday by a return to magic.
Groups are an attractive option for service providers, offering the prospect of reduced waiting lists and greater access to therapy. But comparisons of group interventions show them to be inferior to individual therapy post-trauma and to offer no added benefit to treatment as usual. Kearney et al. (2021) compared the effectiveness of group cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for the treatment of PTSD with group loving-kindness meditation (LKM) which involved the silent repetition of phrases intended to elicit feelings of kindness for oneself and others. The proportion of veterans who lost their diagnostic status i.e. who no longer suffered from PTSD did not differ at the end of treatment (CPT – 29%, LKM – 27.5%). Each intervention consisted of 12 weekly 90-minute group sessions but the mean number sessions completed was only six in CPT and seven in LKM. Resick et al. (2017) found that in a population of veterans group CPT was inferior to individual CPT. Preparatory group treatment for CPT or prolonged exposure does not enhance outcome. Dedert et al. (2020) examined whether a preparatory group with a focus on psychoeducation, coping skills, sleep hygiene and an introduction to PTSD treatment options added benefit to the trauma-focussed interventions, it did not. Further, those who went through a preparatory group did less well than those who did not in whatever trauma-focussed CBT they went onto in terms of PTSD symptom reduction. There is no evidence that initial Stabilisation Groups contribute to treatment effectiveness. However, the aforementioned studies were all on veterans, so care has to be taken in generalising from the results. But a study by Mahoney et al. (2020) of women prisoners who reported a history of interpersonal violence and trauma found that a ten-session group psychoeducational programme, Survive and Thrive, conferred no benefit over treatment as usual.
There appears to be no benefit to a phase-based approach, in which the first phase has as its goal safety and stabilisation, despite the inherent attractiveness of this option.
Scott, Michael J. Personalising Trauma Treatment (p. 293). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
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?
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
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:
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.
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. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-020-0380-2] in which we identified – 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.
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. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-020-0380-2] we wrote ‘patients 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 https://doi.org/10.1002%2F14651858.CD011142.pub2 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 https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng193 Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: assessment of all chronic pain and management of chronic primary pain www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng193. 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 https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng206/resources/myalgic-encephalomyelitis-or-encephalopathychronic-fatigue-syndrome-diagnosis-and-management-pdf-66143718094021 ‘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