Does psychotherapy work?

There is now a growing body of evidence that psychoanalytic psychotherapy works as well as – if not better than – other methods.

There is lots of information online, particularly if you include the term ‘psychodynamic’ in your search.

A useful list of research is contained in Jessica Yakeley and Peter Hobson’s paper looking at the evidence supporting psychoanalytic psychotherapy (PDF, 69KB). It is an example of what is starting to be produced.

Why researching psychotherapy in the past has been tricky

Psychoanalysis has been around since the end of the 19th century. But until quite recently it was thought to be difficult to do robust research into how well it works.

In fact, if you do a Google search for the evidence about the effectiveness of psychoanalytic approaches, you don’t find a great deal of research until the last 10 years or so. This is because to carry out research that stands up to proper scrutiny, people prefer to carry out ‘randomised controlled trials’. These involve large numbers of people and ‘control groups’ to enable researchers to compare different methods.

The trouble with this for psychoanalysis has been that because it is such a highly individual treatment, it is very difficult to set up a research project that can prove that everyone on the trial has received the same approach. In other words, it’s hard to compare results ‘like with like’.

There was also a worry that, because psychoanalytic approaches are confidential and normally stay just between the therapist and the client, it was felt that the research activities themselves would alter what goes on between the two people, and become less helpful for the client.

Recent advances

More recently, people working in mental health services have wanted to show the evidence for all sorts of approaches.

The psychoanalytic world has looked at ways of showing how psychoanalytic approaches work. The NHS in the UK has focussed a lot in the last few years on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other kinds of approaches that tend to be briefer than psychoanalytic approaches.

It has been felt to be important to gather evidence about psychoanalytic psychotherapy so that people looking for help can compare the different kinds of therapies available for mental health problems.