Medication and talking therapy fail to show any difference to placebo when treating depression


Posted on December 24, 2011 by 


The treatment of depression has been in the news more than normal this past few weeks as a result of some high-profile suicides. A new study has found that medication and talking therapy have failed to show any difference to placebo when treating depression. Read further information about the study and the story here.

The clinical research study led by Mr Jacques P. Barber, dean of the Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, involved a group of depressed patients and put them randomly to one of three treatment conditions: medication, psychotherapy, or placebo (patients were given inactive pills).

The lead researchers randomly assigned 156 depression patients to three outcomes. They put some in the group taking the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft and other brands), which the patients took on a daily basis for 16 weeks.  Another group underwent a form of psychotherapy which the researchers called supportive-expressive therapy, and this took place twice a week for a total of four weeks (and then weekly for 12 weeks). Another group were pit in a placebo group and given the placebo (inactive pills).

Interestingly, the study found that after the 16 weeks of the trial was up, they did not notice any overall differences in how the three groups fared over the course of treatment.

“I was surprised by the results. They weren’t what I’d expected,” said lead researcher Jacques P. Barber, dean of the Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

This is bound to be an issue that will receive significant debate over the coming weeks. To my mind, I am not that surprised. Psychotherapy is not a quick fix and things often get worse before they get better as clients often have to go deeper and uncover some murky issues in their back story. Indeed supportive-expressive therapy is not CBT. Furthermore,  placebo condition in clinical trials is not really “no treatment” as participants are being asked questions about their condition and are based within a setting that is different to their normal habitat. 

The research study, partly funded by the pharmaceutical industry, concentrated on urban, lower-income adults who suffered with major depression. The study consisted of an unusually large minority population for a clinical trial on depression. Nearly half of the 156 participants (45 %) were of African-American ethnic origin.


Depression explained
Depression MIND 
Anti Depressants
Net Doctor
Royal College resource on depression

About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
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