Student therapists who receive regular feedback from supervisors may be just as effective as licensed therapists at treating patients with anxiety disorders, depression and other diagnoses, suggests a study published last year in Behavior Therapy. That's good news for grad students who fear they are falling short of their clients' needs, says study author Lars-Göran Öst, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at Stockholm University.
"If we're talking about students who have continuous supervision by experienced supervisors and follow evidence-based treatment guidelines, then they will probably do a good job," Öst says.
The study measured the treatment outcomes of 591 clients who met with student therapists at the Stockholm University psychotherapy clinic. Patients with problems deemed too difficult for the students, such as alcohol dependence, psychotic disorders, severe depression and most personality disorders, were referred to a community mental health center.
The students, 294 fourth- and fifth-year doctoral students who focused on cognitive-behavioral therapy, met an average of 17 times with clients to diagnose and treat them. Students also met with their supervisors — weekly for the first year of CBT training and biweekly for the final semester — to watch videos of their sessions, discuss and come to an agreement on their clients' problems, and build treatment plans.
Patients reported the severity of their symptoms on a variety of scales before and after treatment. Rather than liken treatment outcomes to those of a control group, researchers compared the improvement of students' clients to past studies of patients working with therapists licensed in CBT. The results indicated that clients of student therapists improved just as significantly as clients of licensed professionals. What's more, only 8 percent of the patients dropped out of treatment, an attrition rate that's much lower than average, researchers found.
Though the study focused on Swedish grad students, the findings probably extend to American students as well — assuming they are also applying evidence-based therapy with good supervision, Öst says. The key? Seek out and accept feedback from your supervisor, he says.
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