Open Access Research article

The effectiveness of problem solving therapy in deprived South African communities: results from a pilot study

Edith van't Hof12*, Dan J Stein1, Isaac Marks3, Mark Tomlinson4 and Pim Cuijpers2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

2 Department of Clinical Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

3 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK

4 Department of Psychology, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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BMC Psychiatry 2011, 11:156  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-11-156

Published: 30 September 2011



The majority of South Africans with a DSM-IV diagnosis receive no treatment for their mental health problems. There is a move to simplify treatment for common mental disorders (CMDs) in order to ease access. Brief problem solving therapy (PST) might fill the treatment gap for CMD's in deprived communities in South Africa. This pilot study evaluates the feasibility, acceptability and effectiveness of this PST program for CMD's in deprived communities around Cape Town.


A Dutch problem solving program was adapted and translated into English, Xhosa and Afrikaans and thereafter implemented in townships around Cape Town. An initial attempt to recruit participants for online PST proved difficult, and so the program was adapted to a booklet format. Volunteers experiencing psychological distress were invited to participate in the either individually or group delivered 5-week during self-help program. To evaluate the effectiveness, psychological distress was administered through self-report questionnaires. After completion of the intervention participants also rated the program on various acceptability aspects.


Of 103 participants, 73 completed 5 weeks of brief PST in a booklet/workshop format. There were significantly more dropouts in those who used the booklet individually than in the group. Psychological distress measured on the K-10 and SRQ fell significantly and the program was evaluated positively.


The results suggest that brief problem solving in a booklet/workshop format may be an effective, feasible and acceptable short-term treatment for people with CMD's in deprived communities. In this setting, group delivery of PST had lower drop-out rates than individual delivery, and was more feasible and acceptable. Randomized controlled trials are needed to evaluate the effect of brief self-help PST more rigorously.