Five years of Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT)

It’s been five years since the launch of the government’s flagship mental health programme, Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

IAPT is the biggest expansion of mental health services anywhere in the world, ever. It has already trained 4,000 new therapists in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and 2,000 more therapists are being trained. It’s doubled the NHS spend on mental health services (from 0.3% to 0.6% of the NHS annual budget), and is on course to treat 900,000 people for depression and anxiety in England every year, many of whom would never have had access to therapy in the private sector. The recovery rate for people requiring two or more sessions of treatment is approaching 45%, with others making improvements even if they remain depressed by clinical standards. That is a lot of human suffering healed, though still only 10-15% of those afflicted by depression and anxiety.

I’m now researching a long article on the first five years of IAPT, which hopefully a magazine will publish. This week I interviewed David Clark, the CBT psychologist who masterminded IAPT, as well as several other therapists and service-users, and next week hopefully I’ll interview Richard Layard, the economist who made the economic case for IAPT to the Labour government in 2006. IAPT only arose, by the by, because Clark and Layard happened to meet when they were both made fellows of the British Academy in 2003. They met during the tea break, and Layard said he was writing a book on happiness and was interested in mental health. Clark told him a bit about CBT, and the rest, as they say, is history.

David Clark, left, having some more tea

Here are five interesting things I’ve learnt so far about IAPT:

1) IAPT is the prime example of psychotherapy in the age of big data

Back in the early 20th century, the evidence for psychotherapy consisted of therapists’ personal case histories, anecdotal evidence like Freud’s Anna O or Wolfman cases. These were interesting to read (who doesn’t love a good story) but they also turned out to be misleading and not very scientific (some of Freud’s patients didn’t recover, like he said they did). Today, psychotherapy is embracing the era of big data, and IAPT is the prime example of that. Service-users fill out feedback forms before each session, which are used to assess how well the treatment is working. These forms are then collated to assess how well the programme is working at the national level too.

So far, the data from IAPT has been fairly rudimentary, only really looking at recovery rates. But as of next month, the data sent through will be much richer, taking account of what conditions patients have, what treatment they received, what ethnicity and demographic they are, which region they’re in, and so on. All of this will be available to the public through the NHS’ information centre, which will which therapies have worked well for which conditions, and where the service is failing to reach people, in particular regions, demographics or ethnicities. There are already signs, for example, that IAPT is not sufficiently reaching the millions of people who suffer from social anxiety – so this group may need to be encouraged to self-refer for services.

2) IAPT needs improving

There is a risk that IAPT will suffer from ‘mission creep’ and end up being allocated serious cases it was not designed to treat. It’s designed for the treatment of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, in some local authorities, commissioning boards have cut funding for other types of psychotherapy which are used for more serious conditions, so IAPT services are now treating patients with, say, bipolar disorder or personality disorders. David Clark says that’s not happening at a national level, but may be happening in some regions (it is).

IAPT also remains controversial in so far as many psychotherapists in non-CBT traditions say it only really provides CBT. This is because the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) mainly recommended CBT when it reviewed the evidence for psychotherapies for depression and anxiety (it also recommends Interpersonal Therapy, Couples Therapy, Counseling and Behaviour Activation Therapy). But psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapists say NICE is wrong, and that in fact the evidence suggests all talking therapies work roughly as well as each other. They also suggest studies comparing CBT to other treatments are often biased because the researchers have an allegiance to CBT. And, finally, they insist randomised controlled trials aren’t necessarily the best assessment of how therapies work in practice.

These issues remain very contested within psychotherapy. This is unsurprising – IAPT must have arrived like a bomb into the world of private psychotherapeutic practice. Suddenly, there were 4000 new therapists providing therapy for free, many of them with only a year’s training. That was bound to annoy older therapists in the private sector.

Peter Fonagy

There are signs that other forms of therapy are beginning to embrace the IAPT methodology. Several prominent psychoanalysts from the Maudsley Clinic, including Peter Fonagy, are trialling Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy, which is a form of brief psychoanalytic therapy for depression. If the trial is approved by NICE, it might mark an interesting moment of mass Freudian therapy.

3) The NHS’ mental health services are about to become a free market

Just a few years after IAPT created a free national mental health service, the Coalition government’s NHS reforms are about to open it up to competition. Starting this year, Health and Well-Being Boards will be able to commission ‘any qualified provider’ to provide mental health services in their area. That might be the existing IAPT service, or it might be some new organisation competing for tenders.

Well-Being Boards will have to decide how to choose between competing organisations. They could decide to give money to the organisation with the best recovery rates. But that might create what David Clark calls “a skewed incentive” for organisations to only take on easy cases where recovery is much more likely, while turning away any harder cases. It also creates the risk of unscrupulous organisations simply faking their results in order to win NHS contracts. The Department of Health is considering how best to evaluate organisations at the moment – perhaps ‘progress made’ is better than recovery rates, in that it takes account of difficult cases who have made a lot of improvement even if they’re still clinically depressed. Some therapists think outcome measures should also assess actual changes people have made in their lives, rather than simply how they’re feeling.

4) IAPT is being expanded into new areas, and new countries

IAPT is now being rolled out for children and young people, though it appears to be happening on a smaller scale than the adult roll out. It’s also being expanded to treat patients with chronic physical health problems that may be co-morbid with emotional problems, like say cardiovascular disease or chronic pain; or for physical conditions that may be partly psychosomatic, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There are also trials underway of IAPT-style services for psychotic illnesses like Bipolar Disorder, Manic Depression and Personality Disorders, often using CBT but also Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. I would be interested to see if CBT might become one tool the NHS uses as it tries to reduce national obesity levels: there is some evidence it’s useful as part of a diet plan.

In terms of other countries, Scotland and Northern Ireland have still yet to put serious investment into mental health services, although their national mental health strategies have suggested they should. Canada’s new national mental health strategy also calls for greater provision of talking therapies. Norway has recently launched an IAPT-style pilot programme, with around 12 IAPT-style centres around the country.

Sweden already has a CBT programme to help people back to work, which hasn’t alas proved very successful. IAPT in the UK has more modest targets for helping people back to work, which so far it’s met – but a new article in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that Richard Layard’s original estimate of IAPT’s contribution to QALYs (Quality-adjusted Life Years) was “highly inflated” – so it may not be quite as good economic value as Layard originally argued.

5) There is a role for community arts organisations to work with IAPT services

IAPT services sometimes try to help patients beyond their course of therapy, so that they carry on their recovery and also meet other people working to get better. Sometimes, IAPT services will run post-treatment groups – for example, some services run mindfulness-CBT groups for people with histories of depression. And sometimes they will connect with local community groups, such as MIND or Re-Think. That includes connecting with community arts groups – Lambeth’s IAPT service, for example, works with local sports organisations, a theatre group called Kindred Minds, an African culture group called Tree of Life, a debating club, even a circus-trapeze training group, as well as with several peer-led recovery groups. These groups have their own funding sources, by the way, they’re not funded by IAPT.

Some local authorities are also developing Recovery Colleges, which take a more educative approach to mental health recovery, treating people as students learning how to take care of themselves. I’m teaching a workshop in ancient philosophy at one such Recovery College next month, and I think there’s a lot of room for arts and humanities academics to connect with IAPT services or Recovery Colleges for their own expertise, whether that’s in art history, drama, history, literature, philosophy or other disciplines.

One therapist I interviewed, Nick McNulty from Lambeth’s IAPT centre, said he’d just had a client who was interested in Stoic philosophy, and wanted more of a values-based approach to mental health recovery. IAPT’s job is not to help people flourish, it’s to help get them through difficulties and crises and to get them to a position where they can begin to seek the good life for themselves. I think at that stage, after IAPT, there is potentially a role for practical philosophy, particularly when it offers a broader ethical context for some of the CBT skills that people have recently learned.

In general, IAPT strikes me as an educational project as much as it is a health programme. A lot of what it provides is ‘psycho-education’, or ‘guided self-help’, trying to teach people to learn how to take care of themselves, as Socrates tried to do, and become ‘doctors to themselves’ as Cicero put it. NICE clearly sees the benefits of self-help, which is a big validation for people like me who believe that self-help isn’t a load of junk, although clearly the relationship with a therapist is very important for some people too. By providing a ‘stepped care’ approach, IAPT tries to help both people like me, who are interested in learning how to take care of ourselves, and other people who are really seeking a relationship of care.

We, as users of the service, need to learn how to ask for what we want – how to self-refer for talking therapy even if our GP wants us to take Prozac, how to ask to step up to a higher level of care if guided self-help isn’t enough, how to ask for specific types of therapy, and also how to ask how to change therapist if we don’t have a rapport with the one allocated to us. We need to learn how to take care of ourselves and each other, not entirely relying on the NHS to do the work for us. And, finally, we need to learn how to support the young service politically, if it’s something we think is worth keeping.

5 thoughts on “Five years of Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT)

  1. I am currently doing a Maters dessertation on mental health needs of unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees and wish to know whether this programme has any specific plan regarding mental health of asylum seekers and refugees. if so can you inform me on it please

  2. I am a Maters stdent doing a dessertation on mental health needs of asylum seekers and refugees and wish how to know how this programme fits in with this and whether if so how specific is it

    • I don’t know the answer to this Im afraid, but I think there may be different programmes designed specifically for asylum seekers. I don’t know, sorry.

  3. Dear Jules,
    Thanks for the interesting read.
    I am currently studying depression at university, and I am looking into IAPT now, hence coming across this piece. I would be interested to find the source behind the statement “psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapists say NICE is wrong, and that in fact the evidence suggests all talking therapies work roughly as well as each other”, as it would provide an excellent argument for my work.
    Many thanks

  4. Pingback: Love, Pain, Ecstasy, and Murder: An Emotional Christmas | The History of Emotions Blog

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