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J Gen Intern Med. 2011 Jun;26(6):643-50. doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1608-2. Epub 2010 Dec 24.

Examination of the utility of psychotherapy for patients with treatment resistant depression: a systematic review.

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VA Puget Sound Health Care System, University of Washington School of Public Health, 1100 Olive Way, Suite 1400, Seattle, WA 98101, USA.



To examine the utility of psychotherapy in managing treatment resistant depression.


PubMed, PsycInfo, Embase, Cochrane Registry of Controlled Clinical Trials, article bibliographies.


Eligible articles had to be in English and include English-speaking adult outpatients from general medical or mental health clinics. Studies had to be randomized clinical trials (RCT) involving at least one of the following psychotherapy modalities: cognitive therapy, interpersonal therapy, or behavior therapy. Patients were considered treatment resistant if they reported partial or no remission following treatment with an adequate antidepressant dose for ≥ 6 weeks. Exclusion criteria included receiving psychotherapy at the time of recruitment, and/or comorbid psychiatric conditions unlikely to be treated outside of specialized mental health care (e.g., severe substance abuse). Due to heterogeneity in study designs, a summary estimate of effect was not calculated. Studies were critically analyzed and a qualitative synthesis was conducted.


Of 941 original titles, 13 articles evaluating 7 unique treatment comparisons were included. Psychotherapy was examined as an augmentation to antidepressants in five studies and as substitution treatment in two studies. A total of 592 patients were evaluated (Mean age ~40 y; Females = 50-85%; Caucasians ≥ 75%). The STAR*D trial used an equipoise stratified randomization design; the remaining studies were RCTs. Compared to active management, two good quality trials showed similar benefit from augmenting antidepressants with psychotherapy; one fair quality and one poor quality trial showed benefit from psychotherapy augmentation; and one good and one poor trial found similar benefit from substituting psychotherapy for antidepressants. One fair quality trial showed lithium augmentation to be more beneficial than psychotherapy.


Review demonstrates the utility of psychotherapy in managing treatment resistant depression. However, evidence is sparse and results are mixed. Given that quality trials are lacking, rigorous clinical trials are recommended to guide practice. In the interim, primary care providers should consider psychotherapy when treating patients with treatment resistant depression.

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