About the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy

Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy have faced a lot of criticism in recent years, and they have been often accused of a lack of scientific credibility.

Both the beauty and the effectiveness of psychoanalysis resides in its ability to embrace the complexity of every unique human experience, while scientific research needs replicability and control of variables, and therefore, to some extent, simplification.

This has caused a certain resistance, among the psychoanalytic community, towards conducting research and, therefore, psychoanalysis has been accused of being unscientific and ineffective – at least, until proven guilty.

In recent years, though, and increasingly at faster pace, psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists has started being involved in researches on the efficacy of our method, and the results are more than positive.

The British Psychoanalytic Council has published a very interesting and clear overview about the – sometimes troubled – relationship between psychoanalysis and research, with also some references to studies which demonstrate the efficacy of this model, called “Psychoanalytic psychotherapy: what’s the evidence?”. A complete, and impressive, list of studies about the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy can be found on the same website: “E-Library of Key Papers and Book Chapters relating to the evidence base for psychoanalytic psychotherapy”.

Another list of studies, accompanied by a summary of their main findings, can be found on the website of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: “Evidence in support of psychodynamic psychotherapy”.

In 2010 Jonathan Shedler, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and formerly Director of Psychology at the University of Colorado Hospital Outpatient Psychiatry Department, published the groundbreaking article “The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy”, a very important step forward in establishing psychodynamic therapy as an evidence-based treatment. On his website it is possible to find also other interesting writings.

Another groundbreaking piece has been published in October 2015, when the results of the Tavistock Adults Depression Study have been published. This study provides significant evidence for the efficacy of long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy for NHS patients suffering from chronic depression and it is the first randomised controlled trial in the NHS to establish if this type of therapy can be effective with people not helped by treatments currently provided: antidepressants, short-term courses of counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy. The participants were followed for two years after treatment, in order to look at long-term therapeutic effects.  The study found that nearly half of the patients were still undergoing major improvements two years after therapy ended.

Oliver Burkenam’s long read on the Guardian: “Therapy wars: the revenge of Freud” illustrates in a more narrative style the content of some of the scientific papers quoted above. As Nick Temple, President of the British Psychoanalytic Society, points out, the hope is “that this informed debate that Oliver Burkeman has initiated will continue to enable a balance between the value of CBT as a brief intervention and psychoanalytic treatments which successfully address more deep seated and longstanding psychological problems”.