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The Italian consensus conference on psychological therapies for anxiety and depressive disorders: findings and recommendations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2022

Angelo Barbato*
Affiliation:
IRCCS Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri, Milano, Italy
Gioia Bottesi
Affiliation:
Department of General Psychology, Università degli Studi di Padova, Padova, Italy
Massimo Biondi
Affiliation:
Department of Human Neurosciences, Sapienza Università di Roma, Roma, Italy
Mariangela Corbo
Affiliation:
Department of Mental Health, ASREM, Campobasso, Italy
Giovanni de Girolamo
Affiliation:
IRCCS Fatebenefratelli, Brescia, Italy
Gerardo Favaretto
Affiliation:
Azienda ULSS n.2, Treviso, Italy
Silvio Garattini
Affiliation:
IRCCS Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri, Milano, Italy
Paolo Migone
Affiliation:
Editor, Psicoterapia e Scienze Umane, Parma, Italy
Paolo Moderato
Affiliation:
Department of Marketing, Behavior, Communication ‘G.P. Fabris’, Università IULM, Milano, Italy
Emiliano Monzani
Affiliation:
ASST di Bergamo Ovest, Bergamo, Italy
Franco Veltro
Affiliation:
Department of Mental Health, ASREM, Campobasso, Italy
Ezio Sanavio
Affiliation:
Department of General Psychology, Università degli Studi di Padova, Padova, Italy
*
Author for correspondence: Angelo Barbato, E-mail: angelo.barbato@marionegri.it
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Abstract

A Consensus Conference of clinicians, researchers, public health specialists and users was convened in Italy to review efficacy, effectiveness, treatment appropriateness and access to care for anxiety and depression, and to consider the role of psychological therapies. Expert opinion was sought concerning identification of people requiring psychological therapies according to levels of symptom severity matched to corresponding levels of treatment intensity, suitability of psychological therapies for subclinical anxiety or depression, definition of a minimum level of information on evidence-based psychotherapies to be provided by university medical and psychology courses, initiatives to raise awareness among potential users and decision makers on the role and effectiveness of psychological therapies in healthcare. The expert jury concluded that a number of psychological therapy models endorsed by most authoritative guidelines are supported by research showing their effectiveness at least equal to the drugs used in common mental disorders (CMDs). Such therapies are under-represented in the Italian public health system, leading many people to resort to the private sector, resulting in unacceptable wealth discrimination. The difficulty of accessing psychological treatments often entails the use of drug therapies in cases where they are not indicated. Starting from these assumptions, the experts recommended the promotion of better and timely recognition of anxiety and depressive disorders and their classification in terms of symptom intensity and functional impairment, differentiating subthreshold mood swings from clinical forms, to foster outcome studies of psychotherapies in CMDs in Italy, to introduce a stepped care model structured according to levels of intensity of treatment, based on wellbeing support strategies in nonmedical contexts for subthreshold situations, self-help, support and psychoeducation as frontline interventions in mild clinical forms, evidence-based psychotherapies in moderate and severe forms, with the option of combining psychological treatment and appropriate drug therapy in the most severe cases.

Type
Editorial
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

Psychological therapies for anxiety and depressive disorders: where do we stand?

Anxiety and depression are common mental disorders (CMDs). In the Italian website of the World Mental Health Survey Initiative (de Girolamo et al., Reference de Girolamo, Polidori, Morosini, Scarpino, Reda, Serra, Mazzi, Alonso, Vilagut, Visonà, Falsirollo, Rossi and Warner2006), a representative random sample of non-institutionalised Italian citizens aged 18 or older (N = 4712) was interviewed using Version 3.0 of the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI): 11% of respondents reported a lifetime history of some sort of mood disorder (excluding bipolar disorders) and 10.3% of anxiety disorder. Antidepressant drugs and psychotherapies are considered the mainstay of evidence-based treatment of depression by all guidelines. Both drugs and psychotherapies are effective in reducing depressive symptoms, although high placebo response rates of around 30% are well documented and effect sizes achieved by both treatments in comparison with placebo or usual care are quite small, clustering around 0.30 (Cuijpers et al., Reference Cuijpers, Karyotaki, Weitz, Andersson, Hollon and van Straten2014; Jakobsen et al., Reference Jakobsen, Katakam, Schou, Hellmuth, Stallknecht, Leth-Møller, Iversen, Banke, Iggianguaq, Keingenberg, Krogh, Ebert, Timm, Lindschou and Gluud2017; Leichsenring et al., Reference Leichsenring, Steinert, Rabung and Ioannidis2022). When directly compared, psychological and pharmacological treatments do not show any short-term differences (Cuijpers et al., Reference Cuijpers, Sijbrandij, Koole, Andersson, Beekman and Reynolds2013). Small, clinically not relevant, differences have been found among different antidepressant drugs (Jakobsen et al., Reference Jakobsen, Katakam, Schou, Hellmuth, Stallknecht, Leth-Møller, Iversen, Banke, Iggianguaq, Keingenberg, Krogh, Ebert, Timm, Lindschou and Gluud2017) and different types of psychological interventions (Cuijpers et al., Reference Cuijpers, Quero, Noma, Ciharova, Miguel, Karyotaki, Cipriani, Cristea and Furukawa2021), including cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, problem-solving and interpersonal approaches. Clear-cut evidence of efficacy for any treatment is limited to depression with severe symptoms, when antidepressant medications are often considered the mainstay of treatment (Weitz et al., Reference Weitz, Hollon, Twisk, van Straten, Huibers, David, DeRubeis, Dimidjian, Dunlop, Cristea, Faramarzi, Hegerl, Jarrett, Kheirkhah, Kennedy, Mergl, Miranda, Mohr, Rush, Segal, Siddique, Simons, Vittengl and Cuijpers2015). Some data suggest that combination of psychotherapy and drug therapy might be better than both treatments alone (Cuijpers et al., Reference Cuijpers, Noma, Karyotaki, Vinkers, Cipriani and Furukawa2020). The available data do not support the use of drug therapy in mild and subthreshold depression, in which low intensity psychosocial support, as well as a number of non-conventional treatments (such as intensive physical activity) have proved to be effective (Gartlehner et al., Reference Gartlehner, Gaynes, Amick, Asher, Morgan, Coker-Schwimmer, Forneris, Boland, Lux, Gaylord, Bann, Pierl and Lohr2016; Klein et al., Reference Klein, Berger, Schröder, Späth, Meyer, Caspar, Lutz, Arndt, Greiner, Gräfe, Hautzinger, Fuhr, Rose, Nolte, Löwe, Andersson, Vettorazzi, Moritz and Hohagen2016; Pearce et al., Reference Pearce, Garcia, Abbas, Strain, Barreto Schuch, Golubic, Kelly, Khan, Utukuri, Laird, Mok, Smith, Tainio, Brage and Woodcock2022). Some evidence also suggests that psychological treatments might be more effective than drugs in preventing depression relapse or recurrence in the long term (Bockting et al., Reference Bockting, Hollon, Jarrett, Kuyken and Dobson2015).

Overall, the previous considerations are valid for anxiety disorders (Carl et al., Reference Carl, Witcraft, Kauffman, Gillespie, Becker, Cuijpers, Van Ameringen, Smit and Powers2020), especially considering that CMDs are experienced as dimensional phenomena and comorbid anxious and depressive problems are usual in clinical practice. People with mental disorders consistently report that talking therapies are preferred over drugs (McHugh et al., Reference McHugh, Whitton, Peckham, Welge and Otto2013).

Complaints related to anxiety and depressive symptoms are an important driver for help-seeking behaviour, and primary care should be a key setting for their treatment, since they rank among the most common problems presented by primary care adult patients in Italy (Mazzoleni et al., Reference Mazzoleni, Simonetti, Lapi, Pecchioli, Trifirò, Cricelli and Mazzaglia2011). However, when people with CMDs seek help, their distress is often recognised only when moderate or severe; in any case, the treatment is mostly focused on antidepressant and/or anti-anxiety drugs (Balestrieri et al., Reference Balestrieri, Carta, Leonetti, Sebastiani, Starace and Bellantuono2004), even in people with mild depression (Demyttenaere et al., Reference Demyttenaere, Bonnewyn, Bruffaerts, de Girolamo, Gasquet, Kovess, Haro and Alonso2008). Prescriptions of antidepressant drugs in Italy have been rising steadily in the past twenty years, reaching 44.6 DDD/1000 population in 2021 (Osservatorio Nazionale sull'Impiego dei Medicinali, 2022). There are indications of inappropriate antidepressant use (Lunghi et al., Reference Lunghi, Antonazzo, Burato, Raschi, Zoffoli, Forcesi, Sangiorgi, Menchetti, Roberge and Poluzzi2020).

Some international studies also showed a reduction of social and health costs in samples of individuals with depression treated with psychotherapy (Fournier et al., Reference Fournier, DeRubeis, Amsterdam, Shelton and Hollon2015; Gajic-Veljanoski et al., Reference Gajic-Veljanoski, Sanyal, McMartin, Xie, Walter, Higgins, Sikich, Dhalla and Ng2018). Even a modest increase (10%) in recovery rates would cover the costs of increased access to psychological therapies, as occurred in Britain: Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme (Clark, Reference Clark2018).

Mental health care and psychotherapy in Italy

Italy has been widely known internationally in the area of mental health for the ‘Law 180’ approved in 1978, which brought about radical changes in mental health care. Italy's ‘Law 180’ approved in 1978 and widely recognised in international mental health circles, brought about radical changes in mental health care. The 80 mental hospitals active in 1978 were shut down in only a few years, and a comprehensive system of mental health services was developed: in 2020 (last official data) there were 134 Departments of Mental Health providing care to 728 338 citizens suffering from different types of mental disorders (Ministero della Salute, 2021). In contradiction to the radical orientation of Law 180, no provision was made for the training of professionals who carry the main burden of responsibility of implementing the general principles underlying the reform. Neither residency programmes for psychiatrists nor university training for clinical psychologists has changed significantly over the years, and this has a marked impact on the quality of mental health care, as shown by several studies published in the last four decades (Volpe et al., Reference Volpe, Luciano, Palumbo, Sampogna, Del Vecchio and Fiorillo2014). In addition, several surveys found that psychosocial treatments, including formal psychotherapies, are not widely available and are underused for the treatment of patients who may be in need of them (Barbato et al., Reference Barbato, Vallarino, Rapisarda, Lora, Parabiaghi, D'Avanzo and Lesage2016).

In 1989 a new law established a number of conditions which have to be met to be licensed as a psychotherapist. It established that professionals aiming to be licensed have to attend a 4-year postgraduate school (paid privately, since publicly funded university schools are very rare) recognised by the Ministry of University and Research (MIUR).

The same law established that the residency training programmes in Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also automatically lead to the license of ‘psychotherapist’.

There are currently 389 official schools providing training in psychotherapy; the criteria for the recognition of these schools, for the content of the teaching syllabus, and for the qualification of teachers are mostly formal (e.g. number of hours of teaching). These schools embrace all kinds of ill-defined theoretical orientations, without regard to the evidence base of research on psychotherapy models (Migone, Reference Migone2020).

According to the Italian Board of Psychology, in 2020 in Italy there were as many as 117 762 psychologists (Consiglio Nazionale Ordine Psicologi, www.psy.it/dati-statistici). It is estimated that there are more than 50 000 licensed psychotherapists; most of them work in private practice, which makes it extremely difficult to access reliable data about their clinical activities, in terms of number of people in treatment, prevailing diagnostic profiles, treatment outcomes, etc. For these practitioners further education is not formally required, although both psychiatrists and psychologists are required to obtain annual CME credits for attending relevant courses.

While there are regulatory agencies (e.g. EMA, FDA, AIFA) controlling the availability of medications and medical devices as well as the conditions for their use, regulatory agencies active in the area of psychotherapy do not exist. This is a critical issue, since the practice of psychotherapy falls under the same legal obligations (e.g. imprudence, inexperience and negligence) as any interventions targeted at people suffering from physical or mental disorders.

The development of the Consensus Conference

Such a complex scenario gave rise to the idea of a Consensus Conference at the end of the Congress entitled ‘Psychological therapies for anxiety and depression: Costs and benefits’, held in Padua in 2016. Participants approved a call for convening a National Consensus group to review extant psychological treatments for anxiety and depression and promote a set of recommendations aimed at improving training, availability, and delivery of psychological treatments for these disorders (Research Group for Treatment for Anxiety and Depression, 2017). A group of Italian psychiatrists and psychologists responded to this invitation and set up the Sponsoring Committee of this Consensus Conference, led by Ezio Sanavio, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Padua.

The Sponsoring Committee started work in 2018 and appointed a Scientific Committee. The aims of the Scientific Committee were as follows: to gather evidence about efficacy and effectiveness of psychological therapies for anxiety and depression; to review their patterns of use in Italy; to identify the best ways to disseminate information about evidence-based treatments; and to make them accessible within the Italian National Health Service (NHS). The Committee singled out a multidisciplinary group of experts, belonging to the fields of psychology, psychiatry, social work, general medicine, professional associations and members of users' associations. They were asked to answer a set of questions covering four broad areas: professional skills and training; efficacy and cost-effectiveness; organisational models; dissemination and information. To perform this task, the experts formed four groups drafting several background papers, subsequently merged into a final document submitted by the Sponsoring Committee to an independent jury. This was requested to formulate recommendations based on a scrutiny of the overall report. The jury was made up of 19 members, including experts in health sciences, communication, education, law and social security. A total of 61 persons, covering different professional roles, participated in the work of the Conference over more than three years, from 2018 to 2021 (Sanavio, Reference Sanavio2022). The full list of participants, the proceedings and the background papers are available on the website of the Italian National Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità) (www.iss.it/documents/20126/0/Consensus_1_2022_EN.pdf).

Questions for the experts

The experts initially reviewed data about efficacy, effectiveness, appropriateness of treatment and access to care for anxiety and depression using international guidelines, paying special attention to the strategies aiming to reduce the number of untreated people needing care. Two further questions addressed the identification of people requiring psychological therapies according to levels of symptom severity, matched with corresponding levels of treatment intensity, and the suitability of psychological therapies for subclinical anxiety or depression. Additional questions focused on the training of professionals, including the definition of a minimum level of information on evidence-based psychotherapies provided by medical and psychology schools, the postgraduate training necessary for physicians and psychologists to be licensed for practising psychotherapy and, finally, recommendations for continuing medical education and professional development in the area of psychotherapy.

The various committees of the Consensus Conference examined the guidelines suggested by the main scientific organisations of the USA, United Kingdom and Australia., as described in the Final Document of the Consensus Conference (Working Group ‘Consensus on Psychological Therapies for Anxiety and Depression’, 2022), and reviewed also the main meta-analyses on the treatment of CMDs (anxiety and depression). Many forms of psychotherapy for depressive and anxiety disorders are empirically based, and purposely the Final Document did not specify in detail all forms and techniques of psychotherapy for the various depressive and anxiety disorders, but only some of them otherwise the document would have resulted too long. However, this is specified later in the sections on recommendations. The members of the various committees of the Consensus Conference were representative of different orientations, such as CBT, psychodynamic therapy, etc.

Report presented to the jury

The conditions identified as CMDs are largely heterogeneous, and the severity level plays an important role. It seems reasonable to consider anxiety and depression as dimensional phenomena with respect to which individual cases are positioned along a continuum of severity. The importance of severity assessment to improve treatment is highlighted by the discrepancy between the heterogeneity and complexity of the characteristics of people seeking help, and the prevailing pattern of pharmacotherapy in health settings. For instance, 80% or more of the cases with depression in primary care receive antidepressant drugs (Mazzoleni et al., Reference Mazzoleni, Simonetti, Lapi, Pecchioli, Trifirò, Cricelli and Mazzaglia2011).

To address this problem, the Scientific Committee recommended an approach based on levels of treatment intensity (‘stepped care’). This requires that health professionals should not only detect anxiety and depression, but also assess their severity: to pursue this aim, widely used tools such as the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) for depression and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale-7 (GAD-7) for anxiety, can be considered reliable and valid (Stochl et al., Reference Stochl, Fried, Fritz, Croudace, Russo, Knight, Jones and Perez2022). The severity assessment allows us to offer suitable interventions of varying intensity. The first level relies on guided self-help and low intensity psychosocial support, usually delivered in primary care. Upper levels imply referral to clinicians for structured individual, group or couple psychotherapies; if appropriate, they can be accompanied by other psychosocial interventions or drug treatment in specialist settings. Assessments based on levels of severity are useful when delivered in a context making use of resources allocated to psychological therapies in primary care, as happened in England with the IAPT programme (Muntingh et al., Reference Muntingh, van der Feltz-Cornelis, van Marwijk, Spinhoven and van Balkom2016).

Although official health policy in Italy aims at guaranteeing access and coverage of adequate treatment for mental disorders, a number of surveys show that most citizens with CMDs do not have access to psychotherapy, despite its inclusion in the core benefit package of interventions to be provided by the National Health Service (Di Cesare et al., Reference Di Cesare, Magliocchetti, Romanelli and Santori2021). Moreover, among those who do have access, only a proportion receives treatments of proven efficacy. Therefore, given the limited availability of psychotherapies in the Italian NHS, many people requiring this type of intervention are driven to private (out-of-pocket) delivery of psychotherapy.

The Scientific Committee selected three reference guidelines for anxiety disorders: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (United Kingdom), 2020; American Psychiatric Association (USA), 2013; and American Psychological Association (USA), 2017. Five guidelines for depressive disorders were considered: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (United Kingdom), 2021; American Psychological Association (USA), 2017; American Academy of Pediatrics (USA), 2018; American College of Physicians (USA), 2016; and Orygen Youth Health Clinical Program (Australia), 2017. The Consensus Conference report states that these guidelines apply to the Italian health and social context, although some adaptation to the specific features of Italian health services are required. Moreover, professionals need to receive adequate training in the recommended psychotherapeutic techniques.

E-mental health and new frontiers of psychological treatments

The use of the new technologies to deliver psychological therapies was suggested as a tool to improve access to care for people with CMDs. Research on e-mental health has grown exponentially in recent years, especially due to the restrictions on face-to-face contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research focusing on online assessment shows that screening and monitoring tools can be easily adapted to the online environment without threatening their reliability. With respect to treatment, most efficacy studies of psychological therapies delivered online in CMDs have produced outcomes similar to those observed for treatments delivered in person (Vis et al., Reference Vis, Mol, Kleiboer, Bührmann, Finch, Smit and Riper2018). However, as far as self-guided psychotherapy delivered via internet is concerned, some systematic reviews suggested that contradictory findings from some studies raise concerns about its benefits. Moreover, unguided internet psychotherapy shows limitations that should be addressed before it is introduced in routine care, such as dropout rates, small effects compared with face-to-face and guided internet interventions, and possible participant selection bias (Karyotaki et al., Reference Karyotaki, Efthimiou, Miguel, Bermpohl, Furukawa and Cuijpers2021). Some limited Italian experiences confirm the pros and cons of these interventions (Favaretto and Zanalda, Reference Favaretto and Zanalda2018).

In conclusion, a number of aspects of e-mental health, such as online self-assessments, text messaging and videoconferences can now be considered as standard practice in community mental care. Online structured psychotherapy is promising but needs further real-world research before it can be disseminated in everyday practice. In this area it is necessary to establish transparent rules and appropriate training for professionals willing to provide online therapy, and ethical concerns about fairness, access, privacy and informed consent should be addressed.

Dissemination and information

Official media (e.g. press, radio and TV) as well as social media (e.g. Facebook, blogs, etc.) have been devoting an increasing amount of space to mental health issues, and anxiety and depression, given their high prevalence, have become popular topics for media reporting and entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the information conveyed by the media is often not scientifically sound, and blurs scientific data with personal accounts, philosophical thoughts, etc., leading to severe difficulties in the proper acquisition of data, and limitations regarding any treatments.

Some final recommendations

The jury has produced a considerable set of recommendations; space limitations prevent us from providing a full list of these, and we therefore concentrate on a limited set of points which seem worthy of consideration in any discussion of the psychotherapy of depression and anxiety. There are three key points:

  1. (1) Not all psychological treatments can be recommended. However, some of them are endorsed by the most authoritative guidelines and a considerable body of research shows that they are at least as effective as medications used in CMDs. This refers to the cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, problem-solving and psychodynamic approaches

  2. (2) Such psychological treatments are under-represented in the Italian NHS, obliging most people to turn to the private sector. Such an issue determines unacceptable wealth discrimination in access to health care; in addition, the private sector is often an uncontrolled area, which can create problems in cases of serious disorders.

  3. (3) Given the high incidence and prevalence of CMDs, the difficulty in accessing psychological treatments often entails the consequent use of medications, even when they do not represent first-line treatment.

Based on these assumptions, the jury formulated a number of recommendations: a selection is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Selection of recommendations of the ‘Italian consensus conference on psychological treatments for anxiety and depression’

Conclusions

Psychological treatments for depression and anxiety play a key role in the overall listing of interventions aimed at reducing suffering and impairment in the psychosocial functioning of people with CMDs. Much has to be done in Italy to improve timely access to these treatments, to make sure that they are properly delivered, and to guarantee the accountability of the health professionals providing them.

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Table 1. Selection of recommendations of the ‘Italian consensus conference on psychological treatments for anxiety and depression’