Efficacy of Psychotherapy for Depression 'Overstated'

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The benefits of psychotherapy have been overstated in medical research as a result of publication bias, according to a new study,

Steven Hollon, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and colleagues searched National Institutes of Health (NIH) databases to identify all randomized clinical trials that had received grants from the NIH and had tested the effects of psychotherapy against depression between 1972 and 2008.

Although 55 studies received NIH grants, the results of 13 of them were never published published. The researchers, however, were able to get results of those 13 studies. They then added them to the 42 that were published, and conducted a meta-analysis.

After the unpublished studies were included, the efficacy of psychotherapy dropped 25%, the researchers reported in PLoS One.

“This study shows that publication bias occurs in psychotherapy, mirroring what we've seen previously with antidepressants and other drugs,” Hollon said in a statement. “This doesn't mean that psychotherapy doesn't work. Psychotherapy does work. It just doesn't work as well as you would think from reading the scientific literature.”

The researchers further call on funding agencies and journals to archive the raw data and original protocols of both published and unpublished studies.

Efficacy of Psychotherapy for Depression 'Overstated'
Researchers discovered unpublished studies on psychotherapy that found the benefit of it not as great as thought.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is one of the most common forms of treatment for people with depression. But a new study published in PLOS ONE suggests the benefits of such treatment may have been overstated by previous research.

As an example, the researchers point to one study that identified 74 placebo-controlled antidepressant studies that had been submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of the 38 studies that showed the benefits of antidepressants, 37 were published. However, of the 36 studies that showed antidepressants in a negative light, 61% were not published, while 31% were "spun" to make them appear positive.

For their study, the researchers set out to investigate whether psychotherapy — a treatment that is frequently offered to patients with mild to moderate major depressive disorder — may also have been subject to publication bias.

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