Behavioural activation therapy for depression in adults

Eleonora Uphoff*, David Ekers, Lindsay Robertson, Sarah Dawson, Emily Sanger, Emily South, Zainab Samaan, David Richards, Nicholas Meader, Rachel Churchill

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)

Abstract

Background
Behavioural activation is a brief psychotherapeutic approach that seeks to change the way a person interacts with their environment. Behavioural activation is increasingly receiving attention as a potentially cost‐effective intervention for depression, which may require less resources and may be easier to deliver and implement than other types of psychotherapy.

Objectives
To examine the effects of behavioural activation compared with other psychological therapies for depression in adults. To examine the effects of behavioural activation compared with medication for depression in adults. To examine the effects of behavioural activation compared with treatment as usual/waiting list/placebo no treatment for depression in adults.

Search methods
We searched CCMD‐CTR (all available years), CENTRAL (current issue), Ovid MEDLINE (1946 onwards), Ovid EMBASE (1980 onwards), and Ovid PsycINFO (1806 onwards) on the 17 January 2020 to identify randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of 'behavioural activation', or the main elements of behavioural activation for depression in participants with clinically diagnosed depression or subthreshold depression. We did not apply any restrictions on date, language or publication status to the searches. We searched international trials registries via the World Health Organization's trials portal (ICTRP) and ClinicalTrials.gov to identify unpublished or ongoing trials.

Selection criteria
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of behavioural activation for the treatment of depression or symptoms of depression in adults aged 18 or over. We excluded RCTs conducted in inpatient settings and with trial participants selected because of a physical comorbidity. Studies were included regardless of reported outcomes.

Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently screened all titles/abstracts and full‐text manuscripts for inclusion. Data extraction and 'Risk of bias' assessments were also performed by two review authors in duplicate. Where necessary, we contacted study authors for more information.

Main results
Fifty‐three studies with 5495 participants were included; 51 parallel group RCTs and two cluster‐RCTs. We found moderate‐certainty evidence that behavioural activation had greater short‐term efficacy than treatment as usual (risk ratio (RR) 1.40, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.10 to 1.78; 7 RCTs, 1533 participants), although this difference was no longer evident in sensitivity analyses using a worst‐case or intention‐to‐treat scenario. Compared with waiting list, behavioural activation may be more effective, but there were fewer data in this comparison and evidence was of low certainty (RR 2.14, 95% CI 0.90 to 5.09; 1 RCT, 26 participants). No evidence on treatment efficacy was available for behavioural activation versus placebo and behavioural activation versus no treatment. We found moderate‐certainty evidence suggesting no evidence of a difference in short‐term treatment efficacy between behavioural activation and CBT (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.92 to 1.07; 5 RCTs, 601 participants). Fewer data were available for other comparators. No evidence of a difference in short term‐efficacy was found between behavioural activation and third‐wave CBT (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.91 to 1.33; 2 RCTs, 98 participants; low certainty), and psychodynamic therapy (RR 1.21, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.99; 1 RCT,60 participants; very low certainty). Behavioural activation was more effective than humanistic therapy (RR 1.84, 95% CI 1.15 to 2.95; 2 RCTs, 46 participants; low certainty) and medication (RR 1.77, 95% CI 1.14 to 2.76; 1 RCT; 141 participants; moderate certainty), but both of these results were based on a small number of trials and participants. No evidence on treatment efficacy was available for comparisons between behavioural activation versus interpersonal, cognitive analytic, and integrative therapies. There was moderate‐certainty evidence that behavioural activation might have lower treatment acceptability (based on dropout rate) than treatment as usual in the short term, although the data did not confirm a difference and results lacked precision (RR 1.64, 95% CI 0.81 to 3.31; 14 RCTs, 2518 participants). Moderate‐certainty evidence did not suggest any difference in short‐term acceptability between behavioural activation and waiting list (RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.70 to 1.93; 8 RCTs. 359 participants), no treatment (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.45 to 2.09; 3 RCTs, 187 participants), medication (RR 0.52, 95% CI 0.23 to 1.16; 2 RCTs, 243 participants), or placebo (RR 0.72, 95% CI 0.31 to 1.67; 1 RCT; 96 participants; low‐certainty evidence). No evidence on treatment acceptability was available comparing behavioural activation versus psychodynamic therapy. Low‐certainty evidence did not show a difference in short‐term treatment acceptability (dropout rate) between behavioural activation and CBT (RR 1.03, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.25; 12 RCTs, 1195 participants), third‐wave CBT (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.33 to 2.10; 3 RCTs, 147 participants); humanistic therapy (RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.20 to 5.55; 2 RCTs, 96 participants) (very low certainty), and interpersonal, cognitive analytic, and integrative therapy (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.32 to 2.20; 4 RCTs, 123 participants). Results from medium‐ and long‐term primary outcomes, secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, and sensitivity analyses are summarised in the text.

Authors' conclusions
This systematic review suggests that behavioural activation may be more effective than humanistic therapy, medication, and treatment as usual, and that it may be no less effective than CBT, psychodynamic therapy, or being placed on a waiting list. However, our confidence in these findings is limited due to concerns about the certainty of the evidence. We found no evidence of a difference in short‐term treatment acceptability (based on dropouts) between behavioural activation and most comparison groups (CBT, humanistic therapy, waiting list, placebo, medication, no treatment or treatment as usual). Again, our confidence in all these findings is limited due to concerns about the certainty of the evidence.
No data were available about the efficacy of behaioural activation compared with placebo, or about treatment acceptability comparing behavioural activation and psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal, cognitive analytic and integrative therapies. The evidence could be strengthened by better reporting and better quality RCTs of behavioural activation and by assessing working mechanisms of behavioural activation.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD013305
Number of pages306
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Volume2020
Issue numberIssue 7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2020

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    Uphoff, E., Ekers, D., Robertson, L., Dawson, S., Sanger, E., South, E., Samaan, Z., Richards, D., Meader, N., & Churchill, R. (2020). Behavioural activation therapy for depression in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2020(Issue 7), [CD013305]. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD013305.pub2