Treatments for Psychological Disorders Called Into Question

Many studies may have drawn faulty conclusions.

Posted Aug 01, 2019

At one time removal of children’s tonsils was routine; now they are taken out only under circumscribed instances. There are many other cases of standard medical practices being overturned as new evidence became available. In medicine, this is known as ‘medical reversals,” practices that are abandoned because they have proven to be ineffective, better interventions are introduced, or because the side-effects were worse than the cure.

A new study indicates that the same may hold true for treatments for psychological disorders, such as depression and eating disorders. How effective are treatments for substance abuse and schizophrenia? The efficacy of interventions for these and other illnesses have been conducted and the American Psychological Association has designated them as Empirically Supported Treatments (ESTs).

However, researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Victoria analyzed the data for 78 ESTs. Their conclusion is that the evidence for many ESTs isn’t as strong as initial studies claimed. When subjected to strong statistical analysis, it turned out that many ESTs turned up wanting.

“But based on this evidence, we don’t know if most therapies designated as ESTs do actually have better science on their side compared to alternative, research-supported forms of therapy,” co-lead researcher John Sakaluk, a University of Victoria psychology professor, said, according to a press release.

Their study might lead some patients to seek out alternative medical treatments that proliferate on the internet. But this would be a mistake. In fact, the study makes the case for the scientific method. The real importance is that better studies will be done in the future.

Meanwhile, what is a patient to do? The advice is practical and one that should be followed regularly by all patients and clinicians: frequently and routinely monitor how well the patient is doing in therapy.

Good therapy depends on honest and open conversation. While evidence from scientific studies is important, so are the reports from the patient to the clinician. Patients need to learn how to report accurately and clinicians need to learn how to listen carefully

There is nothing particularly surprising about this conclusion. It is fundamental to all good relationships.