Psychological treatments: A call for mental-health science

Posted on July 23, 2014

Photo: flickr

How does one human talking to another, as occurs in psychological therapy, bring about changes in brain activity and cure or ease mental disorders? We don't really know. We need to.

Mental-health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, schizophrenia and depression, affect one in four people worldwide. Depression is the third leading contributor to the global burden of disease, according to the World Health Organization. Psychological treatments have been subjected to hundreds of randomized clinical trials and hold the strongest evidence base for addressing many such conditions. These activities, techniques or strategies target behavioural, cognitive, social, emotional or environmental factors to improve mental or physical health or related functioning. Despite the time and effort involved, they are the treatment of choice for most people (see 'Treating trauma with talk therapy').

For example, eating disorders were previously considered intractable within our life time. They can now be addressed with a specific form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that targets attitudes to body shape and disturbances in eating habits. For depression, CBT can be as effective as antidepressant medication and provide benefits that are longer lasting. There is also evidence that interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is effective for treating depression.

But evidence-based psychological treatments need improvement. Although the majority of patients benefit, only about half experience a clinically meaningful reduction in symptoms or full remission, at least for the most common conditions. For example, although response rates vary across studies, about 60% of individuals show significant improvement after CBT for OCD, but nearly 30% of those who begin therapy do not complete it. And on average, more than 10% of those who have improved later relapse. For some conditions, such as bipolar disorder, psychological treatments are not effective or are in their infancy.

Moreover, despite progress, we do not yet fully understand how psychological therapies work — or when they don't. Neuroscience is shedding light on how to modulate emotion and memory, habit and fear learning. But psychological understanding and treatments have, as yet, profited much too little from such developments.

It is time to use science to advance the psychological, not just the pharmaceutical, treatment of those with mental-health problems. Great strides can and must be made by focusing on concerns that are common to fields from psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology to genetics and molecular biology, neurology, neuroscience, cognitive and social sciences, computer science, and mathematics. Molecular and theoretical scientists need to engage with the challenges that face the clinical scientists who develop and deliver psychological treatments, and who evaluate their outcomes. And clinicians need to get involved in experimental science. Patients, mental-health-care providers and researchers of all stripes stand to benefit.

Interdisciplinary communication is a problem. Neuroscientists and clinical scientists meet infrequently, rarely work together, read different journals, and know relatively little of each other's needs and discoveries. This culture gap in the field of mental health has widened as brain science has exploded. Researchers in different disciplines no longer work in the same building, let alone the same department, eroding communication. Separate career paths in neuroscience, clinical psychology and psychiatry put the fields in competition for scarce funding.

Part of the problem is that for many people, psychological treatments still conjure up notions of couches and quasi-mystical experiences. That evidence-based psychological treatments target processes of learning, emotion regulation and habit formation is not clear to some neuroscientists and cell biologists. In our experience, many even challenge the idea of clinical psychology as a science and many are unaware of its evidence base. Equally, laboratory science can seem abstract and remote to clinicians working with patients with extreme emotional distress and behavioural dysfunction.

To read the full article, please click on the link below.


Category(s):Mental Health in Asia, Mental Health Professions

Source material from Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science


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