The War of evidence-based psychotherapy: part two


Turnaround is fair play. That’s what it seems like when the champions of psychodynamic models like Jonathan Shedler caricature their CBT counterparts. As I’m no more in their offices as they are in mine, I don’t really know what they do or don’t do in their interventions, but I glean. I don’t glean that my CBT colleagues use workbooks like cookbooks, offering rote interventions that they either memorize or read from a sheet. Nor do I think that most CBT therapists interrupt when a client is speaking of family of origin material; that they scoff at such unstructured navel-gazing and inform clients that exploring the past is a waste of time. Many believe in a structured approach, one that mimics a teaching paradigm to some extent: passing out information worksheets, assigning homework…educating. I recall working in an agency that made copious use of defense analysis worksheets. Clients were meant to read along in a group or in one-on-one meetings, examples of typical defense mechanisms matched to illustrative phrases. They were meant to reflect and say, “I think I do that”, and so on, presumably so they’d learn to not exercise those habits in the future. I’d give lectures to groups on defense mechanisms, codependency—a host of topics I liked expounding upon—delivered bullet-point style, to individuals who appeared to lap up didactic material, to learn if not wholly integrate into their minds, because the learning they need isn’t academic. It simply isn’t. Anyway, the promulgaters of structured approaches think it necessary to, as they sometimes put it, set the limb (with information) before they encourage the broken patient to walk (meaning, explore). It was/is a catchy turn of phrase and powerful use of metaphor, only it doesn’t really work. The mind isn’t like a limb.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, this debate between proponents of CBT versus the range of psychoanalytically-derived therapies. It doesn’t matter because the establishment that drives mental health treatment has made its choice, based upon economics (the supposition that CBT is a more cost-effective approach), but justified publicly by invoking evidence-based research. Meanwhile, adherents of psychodynamic models ever hold space for a deeper, longer-lasting, sometimes abstruse and painful descent. Students of these models are on the workplace fringe unless working independently. They sometimes meet, in apparent secrecy, in ‘forums’ in hospital basements, Saturday morning church halls, to discuss their older theories like freemasons keeping one step ahead of orthodoxy. Analyst Wilfrid Bion wrote half a century ago that the role of the mental health provider was to be a container for the pathological patient who attacks his or her mind, and to operate without memory or desire so that an unfettered examination of projections and introjections can occur. His approach wouldn’t fly in most mental health agencies, psychiatrist offices today. He ethos is going to sound a lot different on a treatment plan than, say, “Client will use tools to reduce behavior X over the ensuing 90 days”, or “Take 30mgs of Effexor each day”.

The Bion line wouldn’t go on a treatment plan. It would scarcely enter a ‘team’ meeting, or a consult with a fellow professional. And it’s not because professionals don’t think there’s value in the approach of analysts like Wilfrid Bion or his latter day followers. That’s why the debate doesn’t matter, because it’s not really about which approach is better, but rather which approach is more plainly understood; about what can be quantified, studied, measured, published and disseminated widely so that insurance companies, program clinical directors, and possibly consumers—all looking to varying degrees for ‘evidence’ of what works or doesn’t work—can point to something tangible and say, “hey, this looks like it has substance to it.” It’s about what’s utilitarian, more readily conveyed across channels, such that teamwork, professional fusion—that popular if suspect notion of ‘being on the same page’—can transpire.

When I was a clinical supervisor in a mental health agency, back in the day, I used to assuage interns with non-conformist leanings that the external voices of what is evidence-based are not ‘in the room’ with them (though some try to be or think they are ‘in the room’). This ambiguous freedom comes with responsibility, to decide what’s right for a patient, which often means what ‘feels’ right for a patient, when in the dense meaning of a therapeutic moment. Those patients, the consumers of mental health services, rely upon a sage and flexible approach, and they stand to lose if providers simply conform to that which is prescribed. The notion of ‘what works’ in mental health is quasi scientific, semi-observable; the phenomena of desired outcomes in mental health tend to be thinly defined, and observable only over short durations, which doesn’t speak to the lasting and unknown changes that the consumer seeks.

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