According to recent findings, biased academic research has overemphasized the beneficial role of psychotherapy in treating depression.
The study, published on September 30 in the journal PLOS ONE, was conducted by experts from Vanderbilt University, Oregon Health & Science University, the University of Groningen and VU University Amsterdam.
The team of scientists sought to analyze the actual effectiveness of psychotherapy in treating depression. They identified all the clinical trials related to this field, which had been funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health between 1972 and 2008.
They soon realized that almost a quarter of these studies (13 out of 55) hadn’t made their results public, and asked the authors of these trials to share their findings. A meta-analysis was conducted afterwards, which revealed that although psychotherapy is useful to some extent, its effects have been grossly exaggerated.
Interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavior therapy are actually about 25% less influential than the general public has been led to believe. The success rate of these talk therapy tools is at around 20%, whereas previously it had been overblown at closer to 30%.
When it comes to investigating the effectiveness of these depression treatments, the publishing industry tends to favor clinical studies with positive outcomes. Other results which are less favorable are usually ignored, and never reach the public, painting thus a distorted picture of these therapeutic practices.
“This doesn’t mean that psychotherapy doesn’t work(…)It just doesn’t work as well as you would think from reading scientific literature”, explained Steven Hollon, co-author of the study and Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University.
Normally, scientific journal articles undergo peer review before being published. However, it appears this process isn’t entirely objective, since misgivings expressed by researchers tend to be swept under the carpet, whereas advantages are displayed front and center.
The findings actually mirror another controversial paper released in 2008, which showed that selective clinical trials may lead to overestimating the effectiveness of antidepressants. It was proven then that tests which show these drugs are potent tend to be published, while those with negative or mixed results are discarded.
This biased approach may influence perceptions regarding the risk-benefit ratio of antidepressants, and even negatively impact patients who are prescribed these pills. At the time, the findings caused a backlash against this type of drugs, as critics began urging people to seek alternative treatments, with fewer side effects and greater benefits.
Talk therapy had appeared as a worthy competitor, but now it has been revealed that even its supposed impact has been inflated. However, study authors insist that those who suffer from persistent low moods should still turn to therapy and medicine, since even the act of beginning a treatment acts as a powerful placebo for improving emotional well-being.
Nowadays, around 5 to 6 million Americans undergo talk therapy, in an effort to escape from the throes of depression. Given the fact that lives are at stake and objectivity is paramount for ensuring the patients’ safety, experts recommend more transparency when it comes to clinical trials.
All results should be archived, include the unpublished ones, so that biased publishing decisions can be identified and discouraged in the future.
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