Original Research

How Effective Is Group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Treat PTSD?

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References

The 4 other studies contribute substantively to this synthesis but arguably represent lower evidence quality. A large longitudinal study of 496 Australian veterans reported a large effect size that was sustained 9 months after treatment began.10 These researchers used an intensive outpatient program that included medication and other treatment modalities as the basis for GCBT delivery. They reported that the majority of the patients revealed improvement in PTSD symptoms.

Another study sampled a similar group of 10 combat veterans but focused particular attention on sleep-related PTSD symptoms of insomnia, nightmares, and sleep quality.11 Although these researchers were unable to report a significant difference in overall PTSD symptoms for the 8 subjects who completed the protocol, they did find a large effect size on insomnia severity and a medium effect size on sleep quality. Regular treatment, including medication, continued throughout this study.

Other researchers reported a medium effect size on PTSD symptoms while using GCBT in a heterogeneous group with various anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorders, and PTSD.12 Although reporting similar results as all other included studies, this study has some significant limitations, including a 26% dropout rate among the 152 participants. The final study included for synthesis reported a remarkable 67% elimination of the PTSD diagnosis among 6 motor vehicle accident survivors in the small, uncontrolled study.13 Concomitant treatments, including medications, were not reported in detail for these 4 studies except as mentioned.

As a whole, the 6 studies revealed some appreciable commonalities. Time since diagnosis did not seem to influence the results. Attrition was consistently found to be similar to other PTSD treatments. The reported session topics were loosely based on common CBT tenets (ie, education, challenging cognitions, and relaxation techniques) and were typically similar among treatment groups, including the use of homework.

DISCUSSION

As the diagnosis of PTSD increases to unfamiliar levels, GCBT has the potential to be helpful to clinicians and patients seeking alternatives to their current treatments.1,4,14 The reported results imply that GCBT can be useful in PTSD symptom reduction. This could be particularly useful to VA and military providers or rural providers operating with limited resources.

Treatment protocols are not well established and should be approached with care prior to the establishment of CBT treatment groups for those diagnosed with PTSD. Session overviews and descriptions, such as those mentioned in Thompson and colleagues, could provide a reference point for future use.13

Also worth considering, CBT can be an ambiguous term requiring deliberate definition within treatment protocols. As noted in the VA and DoD CPG, exposure- and trauma-focused treatment designs can be efficacious, but these elements do not seem to be required within the GCBT treatment setting.

The current research also suggests GCBT efficacy regardless of the index trauma. This does not suggest that heterogeneous groups were frequently studied nor can conclusions be drawn regarding heterogeneous treatment groups. Elements such as group size and session length are inconsistently reported and require specific consideration as well. There is a distinct lack of research directly comparing individual CBT with GCBT directly, which prohibits meaningful conclusions regarding PTSD symptom reduction. This research gap may well have influenced the recommendations within the VA and DoD CPG. Although some higher quality studies exist, many of the published reports on GCBT have noteworthy design flaw, such as inadequate controls and statistical analysis.

LIMITATIONS

There are some limitations to this literature synthesis. Although the search was limited to the past 5 years, the inclusion of reviews accounts for older evidence. As alluded to earlier, the lack of a standardized GCBT treatment protocol challenges results comparisons as well. The consequent treatment variations make direct interstudy comparison and synthesis difficult. Similarly, outcome measures varied between studies. Also, group psychotherapy is well established and accepted. Therefore, much of the supporting research was accomplished outside the parameters of this literature search. This empirical view of group psychotherapy among mental health providers may also contribute to the lack of available research.

It is also worth noting that studies finding neutral or negative results are often unpublished. This publication bias could account for the lack of available evidence. The research reports do not consistently report therapist qualifications; however, board certificates in group psychotherapy and CBT are undeniably variables available for debate. The inclusion of uncontrolled trials limits these findings as well. Although the above limitations are not exhaustive, they do provide necessary caveats to future generalizations.

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

Perhaps the most important information to gain from future research is that of treatment outcomes. Studies that include a detailed outcome evaluation could reveal patient satisfaction, efficacy, and financial considerations. In the presence of adequate supportive data, GCBT could contribute outcome data regarding trauma survivor symptom normalization, peer support formation, access to care, treatment efficiency, and health care resources utilization. As noted in Barrera and colleagues, future analysis will require a greater volume of trials with an overall increase in methodological rigor.8

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