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Psychological therapy reduced depression earlier (4 months) but at 1 year was not better than usual general practitioner care
  1. Matthew Hotopf, MBBS, PhD
  1. Guy's King's and St. Thomas' School of Medicine London, UK

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 QUESTION: In patients with depression, is psychological therapy (non-directive counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT]) more effective than usual general practitioner (GP) care?


    Randomised (allocation concealed*), unblinded,* controlled trial with 1 year follow up. This abstract reports the results of the randomised 3 way comparison only (197 of 464 patients).


    13 general practices in northern London and 11 practices in greater Manchester, UK.


    197 patients who were ≥18 years of age (mean age 37 y, 77% women) and were depressed or depressed and anxious (score ≥14 on Beck Depression Inventory [BDI]). Exclusion criteria were serious suicidal intent, psychological treatment in previous 6 months, use of antidepressants, restricted mobility, organic brain syndromes, or inability to complete questionnaires. Follow up was 91% at 4 months and 84% at 1 year.


    Patients were allocated to non-directive counselling (n=67), CBT (n=63), or usual GP care (n=67). Psychological treatment was given in the GP's office according to a manual developed for each group. Non-directive counselling was based on the work of Rogers, and CBT involved problem formulation and staged intervention. Patients were initially offered 6 sessions (maximum of 12). Patients in the CBT group had a mean of 5.0 (SD 3.5) sessions, and 9 patients (14%) did not attend any sessions; in the non-directive counselling group, patients had a mean of 6.4 (SD 4.2) sessions, and 7 patients (11%) did not attend any sessions.

    Main outcome measure

    Depression (score on the BDI).

    Main results

    Analysis was by intention to treat. At 4 months, patients in the psychological treatment groups had greater reductions in BDI scores than those in the usual GP care group {mean score decreases 4.5, 95% CI 0.7 to 8.3 for CBT; and 5.7, CI 2.1 to 9.3 for non-directive counselling}; at 12 months, groups no longer differed {mean score differences –0.9, CI –4.2 to 2.2 for CBT v usual GP care; and 0.9, CI –2.4 to 4.2 for non-directive counseling v usual GP care} (table).

    Non-directive counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) v usual general practitioner (GP) care for depression§


    In patients with depression, psychological treatment was better than usual general practitioner care for reducing depression at 4 months, but the difference no longer existed at 1 year.


    The study by Ward et al shows more clearly than ever that patients with depression want “talking treatments,” or psychotherapies. The study used a patient preference design, which meant eligible participants had a choice of being randomly allocated to 1 of the 3 treatment conditions or, if they had a strong preference, to be given one of these without being randomly allocated but still providing data. Almost no one opted for usual care, and although participants did not show a great preference for either CBT or counselling, they used the preference group to avoid receiving usual care.

    The popularity of psychological approaches is reflected by the proliferation of non-directive counselling in UK primary care. So far this growth has taken place in a vacuum of evidence for its effectiveness, indicating that in a patient centred health service, lack of evidence is no obstacle to provision.1 This important and well done trial shows that for patients with depression—most of whom had moderately severe symptoms (the mean BDI score was approximately 25 to 28) non-directive counselling is as effective as the more established treatment of CBT and both are more effective, at least in the short term, than usual care. The investigators speculate on why they found an effect for counselling when another study had shown no benefits.2 They suggest that it was their inclusion criteria, which indicated that the patient had to have substantial symptoms of depression, whereas other trials had used such open inclusion criteria that many participants scored too low on measures of depression to show any benefit.


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    • Source of funding: NHS Executive, Health Technology Assessment Programme.

    • For correspondence: Professor M B King, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Royal Free and University College Medical School, University College London, London NW3 2PF, UK. Fax +44 (0)20 7830 2808.

    • * See glossary.

    • Rogers CR. On becoming a person: a therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1961.

    • Mean differences and CIs calculated from data in article.