Fundamentalism and The Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service

The IAPT Service is a fundamentalist translation of evidence-based psychological therapy. ‘The power of evidence-based psychological treatment’ is the sub-title of the book ‘Thrive’ by Layard and Clark (2014,) the prime movers in the development of IAPT. Whilst acknowledging the potency of evidence-based psychological treatment, it is disingenuous of IAPT fellow-travellers to muddy the distinction between the latter and the IAPT service. IAPT is like a guest at a ball, masquerading as evidence-based psychological treatment. But the hosts: politicians, NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups consider it impolite to make detailed enquiry of the guest, they enjoy the company. Further the National Audit Office cares not that, the ‘ball’ costs £1 bilion this year. 

The important differences between the IAPT service and the psychological therapies delivered in randomised controlled trials are apparent in the extract from Table 1 Shafran et al (2021) summarised below:

A comparison of low intensity CBT and brief traditional CBT



‘Low Intensity’CBT

Brief Traditional ‘High Intensity’ CBT

Who – is it suitable for?


Widely used to address anxiety and depression across the age range and behavioural problems in children (e.g., Bennett et al., 2019; Cuijpers et al., 2010). Evidence supports its use for cases of all severity (Bower et al., 2013; Karyotaki et al., 2018). Typically not advocated where there are significant risk issues.


Typically used widely for disorders where longer traditional CBT would be appropriate

What – is delivered?


Interventions are based on the principles of generic CBT to enable individuals to learn specific techniques (for example graded exposure, cognitive restructuring, problem solving) with the goal of alleviating emotional distress and improving functioning. Between-session reading and excercises are central.


Intervention is an abbreviated version of full CBT, supplemented with provision of between session materials and excercises.


How long is the therapy?

Any input is typically 6 hours or less of contact, often delivered in 20-30 minute sessions

Therapy contact time is typically 50% or less than the full CBT intervention, usually delivered in 50-60 minute sessions


It is implicitly assumed by the advocates of IAPT that the identified differences in Table 1 do not matter. But they provide no evidence for this. The IAPT powerholders declare how therapy is to be delivered, in the absence of independent evidence of effectiveness. It represents the operation and implementation of a fundamentalist translation of the randomised controlled trials of primarily CBT for depression and the anxiety disorders. In keeping with a fundamentalist zeitgeist there is no open debate within IAPT or BABCP of the evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘alleged CBT’ in routine practice.

IAPT claims that it obtains results comparable to those achieved in rct’s but is this credible when in high intensity therapy ‘Therapy contact time is typically 50% or less than the full CBT intervention’ according to Table1? Is it credible that the organisers of the rct’s made the treatments they examined more than twice the length that was necessary? If this was indeed the case, the luminaries responsible for the trials would have been sanctioned by their funding bodies and their ability to attract further research funds, severely curtailed. The more plausible hypothesis is that IAPT does not in fact deliver evidence-based psychological treatment This despite its’ claim to do so to appease NICE, whose seal of approval is the gateway to funding..IAPT muddies the distinction between the power of evidence-based psychological treatment and the power of its’ service. 

Table 1 specifies that ‘low intensity CBT’ consists of ‘generic CBT’ but there has never been an rct of ‘generic CBT’, the rcts are of diagnosis specific protociols. Low intensity CBT cannot be regarded as an evidence-based treatment. Nevertheless, Shafran et al (2021) claim that low intensity CBT is evidence-based but inspection of the cited references reveal a different picture.

  1. The study by Karyotaki et al (2018) is an analysis guided internet-based interventions for depression compared to control groups, with respective remission rates of 38.51% and 21.5%. But patients in the predominantly waiting list control groups do not expect to get better, so that any differences may reflect a placebo effect. There were no active control groups with a credible rationale. The studies did not involve blind assessors and there was no determination of diagnostic status at the start or end of treatment. Patients chose to enter the study online and there could be no certainty that they were representative of depressed patients in general. The mean Beck Depression inventory score at entry to the internet studies 19.4, was almost a standard deviation down on mean scores of about 27 in established rcts [Scott and Stradling (1991)]. It is doubtful that the studies reviewed by Karyotaki et al (2018) provide any evidence that this low intensity CBT makes a real-world difference to clients lives.
  2. The study by Bower et al (2013) focused on whether the initial severity of depression influenced the effectiveness of low intensity interventions. As such it is not germane to the question of whether low intensity CBT is an evidence based treatment, however it cites the Cuijpers et al 2010 study doi:10.1017/S0033291710000772 as demonstrating the effectiveness of the latter. This study is also cited by Shafran et al (2021) in Table 1. In the Cuijpers et al (2010) study guided self help was compared with face to face therapy, but both treatments were determined largely by the results of a diagnostic interview (15 out of 21 studies), so that the intervention matched the diagnosis. No such diagnostic interview is conducted in either low or hight intensity IAPT.  The IAPT service has once again performed its’ own translation of the results of randomised controlled trials. Further in the Cuijpers et al (2010) review  the majority of the studies, 17 out of 21 involved media recruited clients, making the study of doubtful relevance to routine practice. In none of the studies was outcome assessed by a diagnostic interview involving a blind assessor. 

The clinical case for low intensity CBT has not been made, it is simply a short term economic convenience.Evidence that being stepped up to high intensity therapy makes a real-world difference is lacking.


Dr  Mike Scott

It’s A Myth That The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service Pays for Itself

IAPT has flourished over the last decade by proclaiming that it pays for itself [see Layard and Clark’s book Thrive  (2014)]. It has been music to the ears of politicians, NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups  but none, including the National Audit Office, has bothered to question it. Despite the £1bn price tag this year, see footnote 1. Anyone with the temerity to raise doubts, risks being accused of lacking a commitment to mental health, a pre-requisite of being considered progressive, whatever one’s political hue. 


When will the funding and professional bodies such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) and British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy (BABCP) see that the ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’? IAPT claims the service pays for itself by getting people off unemployment benefit (16.8% of IAPT clients) Davis et al (2020)  and/or long term sick or disabled benefit (6.9% of IAPT clients).   It is therefore a change in the employment status of minority of IAPT clients that may justify the belief that the service pays for itself. But further elaboration of this population shows that the proportion of clients who could make an economic difference is smaller still. Further when the psychological mechanism by which a change of occupational status may operate is considered, it is improbable that the service pays for itself.  

 IAPT could in principle get 20-25% of clients off benefits. Assuming the target clientele this year is 20%, i.e 0.3 million people, how would the service pay for itself?  Well 40% of IAPT clients do not attend their 1st treatment appointment, so only 0.18 million will be exposed to an IAPT treatment therapist. Of these 42% attend just one treatment appointment, thus 0.1044 million have exposure  to IAPTs treatments and are in the categories of unemployed or long term sick, and potentially might have their employment status changed by the Service i.e 104,440. Those undergoing IAPT treatment ( defined by the Service as attending 2 or more treatment sessions) have an average of 8 treatment sessions in 2018-2019 Saunders et al (2020) but the unemployed and those on long term sickness benefit are less likely to attend a treatment session, Davis et al (2020), as are those who have been referred previously. Thus one might expect this 104,440 to attend a mean of 6 sessions and treatment typically spans 12 weeks according to Saunders et al (2020) . But the population who may return to employment is smaller still because of the following considerations:

  1. There will be a sub-population of the ‘unemployed’ whose unemployment is  related to a work related negative life event, e.g now being physically unable to do the manual work they were employed to do or maltreatment at work. It is difficult to see how 6 sessions of psychological therapy  delivered over 12 weeks would change the diagnostic status of this sub population. There is absence of evidence that such a dosage of psychological therapy can change the employment status of this sub-population. If the sub-population of clients for whom work has been an iatrogenic factor in their debility, are excluded from the analysis, then the population that IAPT’s ministrations could conceivably address is much less than 100,000.
  2.  There will be a further ‘sub-population’ of the unemployed for whom work within their training is simply not available e.g a redundant fisherman. IAPT does not have the resources to conjure up new opportunities, albeit it might direct a client towards re-training.  

Thus the range of action of IAPT with regards to employment status is very limited and even more so when one considers by what mechanism could the typical 6 sessions change employment status over the 12 week span? To return a person to occupational functioning means addressing three key areas a) persistence – the ability to persist with a task b) pace – the ability to complete a task in a timely manner and c) adaptation – the ability to handle the inevitable hassles of the workplace. There is no evidence that IAPT specifically targets these difficulties or has provided training in tackling them. Neither has it been demonstrated that 6 sessions of psychological therapy can resolve such difficulties in 12 weeks and even less evidence as to whether such treatment is enduring.

IAPT lacks the potency to make a real world difference to the unemployed and those on long term sick. Layard and Clark (2014) muddy the distinction between the power of evidence-based psychological therapies and the power of their offspring, IAPT. It can be objected that IAPT pays for itself by increasing the productivity of those already employed, rather than by changing occupational status. But there is no evidence that it does so anymore than the pre-IAPT counselling services.

IAPT’s claim that it changes the employment status of its’ clients is akin to a Dickensian Government’s claim that Workhouses resolve employment issues.

Footnote and reference


  1. According to The IAPT Manual 2021 the target for 2021 is 1.5 million clients at a cost of £680 per client [data from Clark (2018)] making the anticipated cost of the service this year, £1.02 billion.
  2. Layard, R and Clark, D.M ( 2014) Thrive: The Power of Evidenced-Based Psychological Therapies Penguin Limited

Dr Mike Scott


IAPT’s Modus Operandi: ‘squeeze the client into the briefest cbt, then eject’

and repeat the mantra that it is ‘world beating’ [ see Thrive by Layard and Clark (2014) and Can We Be Happier? Layard (2020)]. For Mariella her 7 IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) sessions were a                     re-traumatisation of the abuse she had suffered in childhood. Four years after her IAPT treatment she was still suffering from low mood and likely chronic fatigue syndrome. The letter from the IAPT therapist said that she had responded to treatment because there had been a 6 point improvement on her PHQ9 and a 2 point improvement on the GAD7 and was therefore being discharged. Mariella refused to countenance a return to IAPT because she regarded it as having been a waste of time. IAPT specialises in putting square pegs in round holes:

Mariella’s maltreatment highlights several important issues:

  1. IAPT Gives Clients No Meaningful Choice At Either Entry or Exit. Mariella’s first face to face contact with the IAPT service was at a group meeting were she was invited to consider which of the services available might be most suitable for her. As she had spent years trying to discover what was really wrong with her she simply did not know what was appropriate for her.  She wondered whether her mood just changed like a bipolar relative. Mariella was convinced she had some underlying rheumatological disorder despite repeated negative testing. She was depressed that a few years ago she had been an exceptionally fit person and now it was total change. Mariella had no say in her discharge from treatment, her understanding was that she had had the allotted number of sessions. No follow up was arranged.
  2. IAPT Doesn’t Ask If Treatment Has Returned You To Your Old Self Mariella was never asked whether she was back to anything like her old self following treatment. The therapist simply pressed the eject button  after the predetermined number of sessions. There was no follow up to see whether improvement was enduring and whether treatment could be regarded as having made a real world difference.
  3. IAPTs Fixation on the PHQ9/GAD7 Mariella’s  score improved by 6 points on the PHQ9 during her IAPT treatment, this is held to be a ‘response’ by the service. This is to over interpret a test result. Such a change can occur with the passage of time e.g Gilbody et al (2015) particularly as people initially present at their worst. Further the test is administered without a reference standard, it was unknown whether Mariella’s primary disorder was depression, PTSD or CFS. No ‘gold standard’ assessment such SCID interview was conducted, making it impossible to a) gauge whether the selected test was actually tapping the primary disorder b) assess for comorbidity in Mariella’s case.  Yet comorbidity has treatment implications. 
  4. IAPT Not Only Fails To Identify Recognised Disorders But Also Fails To Recognise Personality Disorders In 2015 Goddard et al   used a personality disorder screen the SAPAS to gauge  whether it predicted outcome, it did But it has since taken no steps to help therapists reliably recognise the presence of a personality disorder. Given Mariella’s history it is not at all impossible that this was a factor in her being refractory to treatment.
  5. IAPTS Failure To Access GP Records Means That Important Information Is Missed The records revealed that despite the NICE approved graded exercise Mariella, would spend days of exhaustion after such exercise suggesting that something in the CFS domain is occurring. IAPT totally ignored this dimension. 
  6. IAPTs’ Usage of the PHQ9/GAD7 Has No Predictive/Prescriptive Value It is of no more value than Physiognamy in bygone centuries were it was thought that from a photograph of a person one could infer character traits.
  7. IAPT Repeats The Mantra That It Is ‘World Beating” But there is no evidence that it is any better than a) the passage of time b) previous ways of organising psychological therapy. See forthcoming blog ‘No Added Value’. IAPT should try repeating this mantra to Mariella. 

Mariella is not the exception.  IAPT spectacularly fails its’ clients, operating in some parallel universe, unfortunately hooked up to the power holders.  When will they ever learn?


  Dr Mike Scott