Cognitive therapy effective in helping young people at risk of developing psychosis

A study undertaken by the University of Glasgow alongside four other UK universities suggests that a psychological treatment called Cognitive Therapy (CT) is more effective in reducing the severity of psychotic experiences in young adults. The study, which is the largest of its kind in the world, is published on

The new research claims that CT, combined with monitoring, is more effective in reducing the severity, frequency and intensity of psychotic experiences that can eventually lead to conditions such as schizophrenia. Currently there is no coherent treatment for young people at risk of developing psychotic illnesses such as Schizophrenia and this study is a landmark in determining evidence base for this group.

Over a period of four years, teams from the universities of Glasgow, Birmingham, Cambridge, East Anglia, led by the University of Manchester, gave participants, aged between 14 and 35, weekly CT sessions for a maximum of six months. They then monitored participants after treatment to track how their symptoms developed.

Before the trial, international evidence estimated that 40-50% of people at risk of developing psychosis at a young age would progress to a psychotic illness such as Schizophrenia. However, the study found that only 8% of patients were shown to have made transition to a psychotic illness.

The results show that CT is effective in significantly reducing the severity, frequency and intensity of the transition of psychotic symptoms to more serious conditions. These results have led to suggestions that anti-psychotic medicine should not be the first option offered to people at risk of developing Schizophrenia as more benign methods of counselling are more effective.

The team from the University of Glasgow contacted over 70 services from around the city, including services within NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, social work and voluntary sector organisations, to recruit participants for the study. Participants were randomly allocated to CT plus monitoring or monitoring alone. CT was provided for up to 6-months. All participants were monitored monthly for the first six-months and then on a quarterly basis thereafter by the University’s researchers. This ensured that any participants who developed a psychotic illness during the trial received prompt and effective treatment from the NHS.

Professor Andrew Gumley, who led the research team at the University of Glasgow, said: “This study has very important implications for ensuring that young people who are at risk of developing psychosis are offered psychological therapy. Our findings that there is a much lower transition rate than previously found means that clinicians have to be extremely careful about prescribing antipsychotics in this group since only one in ten will actually develop psychosis.”

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First published: 5 April 2012

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