Advocating CBT for Psychosis: “Ultimately it is all political.”

Political… Or just cynical?

Frida Kahlo, “Without Hope”
Frida Kahlo, “Without Hope”

Professor Paul Salkovskis and his colleagues organized a lively, thought-provoking conference at University of Bath “Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia: How well do we understand and what should we do to improve how we help?”

Presenters and members of the roundtable discussion panel included a number of authors of the British Psychological Society’s Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia. But they noticeably  avoided engaging anyone outside their tight knit group, especially speakers disagreeing with their manifesto. The Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia authors appeared glum and dyspeptic throughout lively discussions. The conference nonetheless went on around them. Highlights included presentations by Professors Robin Murray and Clive Adams.

In his “Genes, Social Adversity and Cannabis: how do they interact?” Professor Robin Murray gently chided the authors of the British Psychological Society’s Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia for their insensitivity to the suffering, debilitation, and sometimes terror posed by schizophrenia. For me, his talk clarified confusion caused by the authors of Understanding Psychosis repeatedly claiming Professor Robin Murray had endorsed their document. He did not. He is an exceptionally kind and well-mannered person and I think his polite comments at the earlier launch meeting for Understanding Psychosis were misinterpreted. His presentation at the Bath conference left no doubt where he stood.

A diagnosis of schizophrenia encompasses a wide range of conditions that will undoubtedly by sorted into a tighter, more useful categories as we use existing categories to organize the evidence we accumulate. As Joe McCleary summarized in comments on my FB wall, if we use existing – admittedly imperfect and provisional – categories, we can learn about

the nature of the individuals symptoms and experience, the likelihood and time course of improvement, recovery, and/or relapse, persistence of difficulties in particular domains (intellectual, social, emotional, adaptive functioning), which interventions might be most useful to try, what co-occurring disorders and risks are high and low (e.g., suicide, aggression, dissociation), likely levels of dependence vs independence, impacts on family, reliance on family, impacts on society, reliance on society, risk for harm (e.g., being taken advantage of or abused), etc., etc., etc.

These correlates of a diagnosis of schizophrenia check out well when we go to the available literature.

Professor Peter Kinderman who is President-Elect of the British Psychological Society, as well as an author of Understanding Psychosis was a member of the afternoon roundtable panel at Bath But he mostly sat in silence. He rejects the idea that the diagnosis has led to any progress:

Diagnostic systems in psychiatry have always been criticized for their poor reliability, validity, utility, epistemology and humanity.


The poor validity of psychiatric diagnoses—their inability to map onto any entity discernable in the real world—is demonstrated by their failure to predict course or indicate which treatment options are beneficial, and by the fact that they do not map neatly onto biological findings, which are often nonspecific and cross diagnostic boundaries.

Kinderman repeats these points in every forum he’s given until he lapses into self-plagiarism. Compare Imagine there’s no diagnosis, it’s easy if you try  to Drop the language of disorder.

What does Kinderman offer in place of diagnosis? That we respond to patients in terms ofmy paradigm their nonspecific distress, which is a “normal, not abnormal, part of human life.” This insight, according to Kinderman, places us on the “cusp of a major paradigm shift in our thinking about psychiatric disorders.”

Kinderman leaves us with sweeping declarations and no evidence to support them. He gets quite fussy when challenged. During the Roundtable Discussion, he went off on one of his usual rants, peppered by a torrent of clichés, allusions to unnamed professionals describing schizophrenia as a genetic disease, and argument by anecdote.

But what if we took seriously his suggestion that we drop diagnosis and substitute a generic distress? He concedes that many patients are helped by antipsychotic medication. But getting the best candidates for this treatment depends on the diagnostic label schizophrenia. And just as importantly, keeping patients who are likely to be poor candidates and for whom it will be ineffective, also depends on using the criteria associated with the label schizophrenia to rule out this treatment is appropriate. Unless Kinderman can come up with something else, it would seem that we risk both undermedication of those who desperately need it and overmedication of those who get more harm than benefit, if we abandon such labels.

And turning to Professor Clive Adam’s presentation organizing the available literature around the diagnostic label of schizophrenia, we can see from Cochrane reviews the likelihood that treatment with cognitive behavior therapy in the absence of medication is likely to be ineffective and not at all based on available evidence.

Clive Adams delivered a take-no-prisoners “CBT-P and medication in the treatment of psychosis: summarising best evidence.”  Adams’ presentation is captured in a blog post but its message can be succinctly stated

I just cannot see that this approach (CBTp), on average, is reaping enough benefits for people.

None of the authors of Understanding Psychosis responded to Adams’ strictly data oriented presentation. They simply mumbled among themselves.

Maybe we should simply accept that when the authors of Understanding Psychosis call for extensive discussion and dialogue, it is not what would be usually meant by those terms. They don’t want their monologue  interrupted by anything but  applause.

What the authors of Understanding Psychosis  get is that with Twitter and blogs, you cannot not engage in a dialogue when you put outrageous claims out there. You can only risk your social media identity being defined what others say.

Let’s examine what Peter Kinderman says in another monologic blog post, strikingly free of any reference to evidence, Three phrases. The post discusses three phrases that organized an international meeting concerning cognitive behavior therapy held in Philadelphia in May, 2015.

It’s probably better to read the outcomes of our discussions in peer-reviewed scientific papers and in the policy documents of our various nations. For me, however, three phrases stood out as we discussed our shared interests.

I can’t wait! But until then we have his blog.

The first phrase “Trauma-informed practice” is described

In all kinds of ways, we’re learning how psychotic experiences can relate to trauma – in childhood and as adults. And we’re learning how the ways in which we purport to care for people – with the labels that we attach to their problems, with the explanations (and non-explanations) that we propose, and especially with the treatments that we use (and occasionally impose, even forcefully) – can potentiate experiences of trauma. So I welcome the fact that there appears to be increasing discussion of how we might base our therapies, and indeed our whole service design philosophy, on an appreciation of the role of trauma, for many people, in the development of their difficulties.

Presumably the forthcoming “peer-reviewed scientific papers” will allow us to evaluate the evidence for the efficacy of “trauma-informed” treatment of schizophrenia. I can’t find it. I don’t see where any of the randomized trials of CBT for psychosis that have been conducted are organized around this concept. Does Kinderman have any sense of the history or usage of “trauma-informed” in the United States and elsewhere?

mindbody connection“Trauma informed practice” typically refers to an approach that is more hermeneutic than scientific. The assumption is made that psychological trauma causes both mental disorder and physical illnesses.

Understanding Psychosis takes for granted that traumatic experiences are at the root of most psychotic disturbance. When they invoke evidence at all, it is the work of one of its authors, Richard Bentall. The literature concerning the role of child adversity in psychotic disturbance is  methodologically flawed, but even if we accepted at face, the effect sizes it generates would not justify the assumptions that trauma is behind all psychotic experiences.

In the United States, evidence-based, research-oriented clinicians are skeptical of the slippery slope whereby calls for “trauma-informed practice” too often lead down to nonsense about trauma being embodied in organs and peripheral tissue, not just the nervous system. Untrained and incompetent therapists insist that conditions like diabetes and asthma are linked to trauma, and if patients cannot report relevant traumatic experiences, there should be an effort to recover their repressed memories. Serious damage was done to a lot of patients and their families before the fad of recovering memories of sexual abuse and participation in devil worshiping cults was put down with legal action.

Kinderman’s second phrase is “CBT-informed practice”

It’s hardly a surprise that the acronym ‘CBT’ means slightly different things to different people.

There’s a valuable debate about ‘fidelity’ (whether a therapist is or is not adherent to the accepted elements of CBT). But there’s also an appreciation that, in the field of psychosocial interventions in mental health care, common therapeutic factors, the fundamental role of a good ‘therapeutic alliance’ (a relationship based on respect) and the heterogeneity of individual experiences means that we are now much more likely to talk about “CBT-informed practice”. Again, for me, this is welcome. I believe that it not only allows for valuable innovation and development of psychosocial interventions, but also permits an appreciation of the uniqueness of each person’s experience.

The retreat from any claim to being evidence-based continues. If a therapy carries the branding of evidence-based, it is assumed that it is delivered with some fidelity to what has been tested in clinical trials. Branding as “evidence-based” cannot be retained unless the innovations and further development are themselves subjected to clinical trials. “Evidence-based, is not a branding they can be casually transferred to new products without testing.

Kinderman’s final phrase is “_ ultimately, it’s all political_.”

The attendees of these meetings are all applied scientists (although some have some influential roles in shaping healthcare policies). But it was interesting that many of our discussions referred back to the social circumstances of those people accessing our services, and on the political decisions taken about how those services are commissioned, planned and delivered We discussed, for instance, the role of social determinants of health generally and mental health in particular. We discussed how different psychological and social problems seem to have similar social determinants (and the implications of this). We talked about how trauma, discrimination, racism, the struggles of undocumented migrants and the pressures on unemployed people can affect their mental health. We discussed how people access high-quality healthcare in different states and nations, and we discussed how political decisions – such as those related to involuntary detention and compulsory treatment, the funding of healthcare and provision of different forms of care – impact on our clients. We also discussed how, as a group of professionals, we are increasingly being asked to contribute to these debates.

So for me, it was a very positive and encouraging trip. I am – I remain – confident that conventional CBT, a form of one-to-one therapy that of course has its limitations, can be very positive for people experiencing psychosis. But, given the views I hold about the fundamental nature of mental heath and wellbeing, the phrases that echo most encouragingly from last week’s meeting are “trauma-informed practice”, CBT-informed practice” and “ultimately, it’s all political.”

I think I finally get it. Kinderman is saying that his followers should hold on to claims of being evidence-based, even in the face of clinical trials and meta-analyses providing evidence to the contrary. And they should incorporate elements of “trauma-based practice.” This is not taking  seriously principles of evidence-based evaluation of best practices. but that is not what Understanding Psychosis is about.

Advocating CBT is political, not evidence-based, but we need the latter label for credibility and controlling credentialing.

This is cynical, not political.

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