What works in the treatment of people with post-traumatic stress? The influential Cochrane Collaboration–an “independent network of people” whose self-professed mission is to help “healthcare providers, policy makers, patients, their advocates and carers, make well-informed decisions, concludes that, “non trauma-focused psychological treatments [do] not reduce PTSD symptoms as significantly…as individual trauma focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TFCBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, stress mamangement and group TFCBT.” The same conclusion was reached by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (or NICE) in the United Kingdom which has developed and disseminated practice guidelines that unequivocally state that , “all people with PTSD should be offered a course of trauma focused psychological treatment (TFCBT) or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).” And they mean all: adults and kids, young and old. Little room for left for interpretation here. No thinking is required. Like the old Nike ad, you should: “Just do it.”
Wait a minute though…what do the data say? Apparently, the NICE and Cochrane recommendations are not based on, well…the evidence–at least, that is, the latest meta-analytic research! Meta-analysis, you will recall, is a procedure for aggregating results from similar studies in order to test a hypothesis, such as, “are certain approaches for the treatment of post traumatic stress more effective than others?” A year ago, I blogged about the publication of a meta-analysis by Benish, Imel, & Wampold which clearly showed that there was no difference in outcome between treatments for PTSD and that the designation of some therapies as “trauma-focused” was devoid of empirical support, a fiction.
So, how to account for the differences? In a word, allegiance. Although written by scientists, so-called “scholarly” reviews of the literature and “consensus panel” opinions inevitably reflect the values, beliefs, and theoretical predilections of the authors. NICE guidelines, for example, read like a well planned advertising campaign for single psychotherapeutic modality: CBT. Indeed, the organization is quite explicit in it’s objective: “provide support for the local implementation of…appropriate levels of cognitive beheavioral therapy.” Astonishingly, no other approach is accorded the same level of support or endorsement despite robust evidence of the equivalence of outcomes among treatment approaches. Meanwhile, the review of the PTSD literature and treatment recommendations published by the Cochrane Collaboration has not been updated since 2007–a full two years following the publication of the Benish et al. (2008) meta-analysis–and that was penned by a prominent advocate of…CBT…Trauma-focused CBT.
As I blogged about back in January, researchers and prominent CBT proponents, published a critique of the Benish et al. (2008) meta-analysis in the March 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review (Vol. 30, No. 2, pages 269-76). Curiously, the authors chose not to replicate the Benish et al. study, but rather claim that bias, arbitrariness, lack of transparency, and poor judgement accounted for the findings. As I promised at the time, I’m making the response we wrote–which appeared in the most recent issue of Clinical Psychology Review—available here.
Of course, the most important finding of the Benish et al. (2008) and our later response (Wampold et al. 2010) is that mental health treatments work for people with post traumatic stress. Such a conclusion is unequivocal. At the same time, as we state in our response to the critique of Benish et al. (2008), “there is little evidence to support the conclusion…that one particular treatment for PTSD is superior to others or that some well defined ingredient is crucial to successful treatments of PTSD.” Saying otherwise, belies the evidence and diverts attention and scarce resources away from efforts likely to improve the quality and outcome of behavioral health services.