In a randomized controlled trial, Paul Bolton and colleagues investigate whether a transdiagnostic community-based intervention is effective for improving mental health symptoms among Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Existing studies of mental health interventions in low-resource settings have employed highly structured interventions delivered by non-professionals that typically do not vary by client. Given high comorbidity among mental health problems and implementation challenges with scaling up multiple structured evidence-based treatments (EBTs), a transdiagnostic treatment could provide an additional option for approaching community-based treatment of mental health problems. Our objective was to test such an approach specifically designed for flexible treatments of varying and comorbid disorders among trauma survivors in a low-resource setting.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a single-blinded, wait-list randomized controlled trial of a newly developed transdiagnostic psychotherapy, Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA), for low-resource settings, compared with wait-list control (WLC). CETA was delivered by lay workers to Burmese survivors of imprisonment, torture, and related traumas, with flexibility based on client presentation. Eligible participants reported trauma exposure and met severity criteria for depression and/or posttraumatic stress (PTS). Participants were randomly assigned to CETA (n = 182) or WLC (n = 165). Outcomes were assessed by interviewers blinded to participant allocation using locally adapted standard measures of depression and PTS (primary outcomes) and functional impairment, anxiety symptoms, aggression, and alcohol use (secondary outcomes). Primary analysis was intent-to-treat (n = 347), including 73 participants lost to follow-up. CETA participants experienced significantly greater reductions of baseline symptoms across all outcomes with the exception of alcohol use (alcohol use analysis was confined to problem drinkers). The difference in mean change from pre-intervention to post-intervention between intervention and control groups was −0.49 (95% CI: −0.59, −0.40) for depression, −0.43 (95% CI: −0.51, −0.35) for PTS, −0.42 (95% CI: −0.58, −0.27) for functional impairment, −0.48 (95% CI: −0.61, −0.34) for anxiety, −0.24 (95% CI: −0.34, −0.15) for aggression, and −0.03 (95% CI: −0.44, 0.50) for alcohol use. This corresponds to a 77% reduction in mean baseline depression score among CETA participants compared to a 40% reduction among controls, with respective values for the other outcomes of 76% and 41% for anxiety, 75% and 37% for PTS, 67% and 22% for functional impairment, and 71% and 32% for aggression. Effect sizes (Cohen's d) were large for depression (d = 1.16) and PTS (d = 1.19); moderate for impaired function (d = 0.63), anxiety (d = 0.79), and aggression (d = 0.58); and none for alcohol use. There were no adverse events. Limitations of the study include the lack of long-term follow-up, non-blinding of service providers and participants, and no placebo or active comparison intervention.
CETA provided by lay counselors was highly effective across disorders among trauma survivors compared to WLCs. These results support the further development and testing of transdiagnostic approaches as possible treatment options alongside existing EBTs.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide, one in four people will experience a mental health disorder at some time during their life. Although many evidence-based treatments (EBTs), most involving some sort of cognitive behavioral therapy (talking therapies that help people manage their mental health problems by changing the way they think and behave), are now available, many people with mental health disorders never receive any treatment for their condition. The situation is particularly bad for people living in low-resource settings, where a delivery model for EBTs based on referral to mental health professionals is problematic given that mental health professionals are scarce. To facilitate widespread access to mental health care among poor and/or rural populations in low-resource settings, EBTs need to be deliverable at the primary or community level by non-professionals. Moreover, because there is a large burden of trauma-related mental health disorders in low-resource settings and because trauma increases the risk of multiple mental health problems, treatment options that address comorbid (coexisting) mental health problems in low-resource settings are badly needed.
Why Was This Study Done?
One possible solution to the problem of delivering EBTs for comorbid mental health disorders in low-resource settings is “transdiagnostic” treatment. Many mental health EBTs for different disorders share common components. Transdiagnostic treatments recognize these facts and apply these common components to a range of disorders rather than creating a different structured treatment for each diagnosis. The Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA), for example, trains counselors in a range of components that are similar across EBTs and teaches counselors how to choose components, their order, and dose, based on their client's problems. This flexible approach, which was designed for delivery by non-professional providers in low-resource settings, provides counselors with the skills needed to treat depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress—three trauma-related mental health disorders. In this randomized controlled trial, the researchers investigate the use of CETA among Burmese refugees living in Thailand, many of whom are survivors of decades-long harsh military rule in Myanmar. A randomized controlled trial compares the outcomes of individuals chosen to receive different interventions through the play of chance.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers assigned Burmese survivors or witnesses of imprisonment, torture, and related traumas who met symptom criteria for significant depression and/or posttraumatic stress to either the CETA or wait-list control arm of their trial. Lay counselors treated the participants in the CETA arm by delivering CETA components—for example, “psychoeducation” (which teaches clients that their symptoms are normal and experienced by many people) and “cognitive coping” (which helps clients understand that how they think about an event can impact their feelings and behavior)—chosen to reflect the client's priority problems at presentation. Participants in the control arm received regular calls from the trial coordinator to check on their safety but no other intervention. Participants in the CETA arm experienced greater reductions of baseline symptoms of depression, posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and aggression than participants in the control arm. For example, there was a 77% reduction in the average depression score from before the intervention to after the intervention among participants in the CETA arm, but only a 40% reduction in the depression score among participants in the control arm. Importantly, the effect size of CETA (a statistical measure that quantifies the importance of the difference between two groups) was large for depression and posttraumatic stress, the primary outcomes of the trial. That is, compared to no treatment, CETA had a large effect on the symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress experienced by the trial participants.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that, among Burmese survivors and witnesses of torture and other trauma living in Thailand, CETA delivered by lay counselors was a highly effective treatment for comorbid mental disorders compared to no treatment (the wait-list control). These findings may not be generalizable to other low-resource settings, they provide no information about long-term outcomes, and they do not identify which aspects of CETA were responsible for symptom improvement or explain the improvements seen among the control participants. Given that the study compared CETA to no treatment rather than a placebo (dummy) or active comparison intervention, it is not possible to conclude that CETA works better that existing treatments. Nevertheless, these findings support the continued development and assessment of transdiagnostic approaches for the treatment of mental health disorders in low-resource settings where treatment access and comorbid mental health disorders are important challenges.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001757.
The World Health Organization provides background information about mental health
The US National Institute of Mental Health provides information about a range of mental health disorders and about cognitive behavioral therapy
The UK National Health Service Choices website has information about cognitive behavioral therapy, including some personal stories and links to other related mental health resources on the Choices website
A short introduction to transdiagnosis and CETA written by one of the trial authors is available
Information about this trial is available on the ClinicalTrials.gov website
The UN Refugee Agency provides information about Burmese (Myanmar) refugees in Thailand