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Brief psychological therapies for anxiety and depression in primary care: meta-analysis and meta-regression

John Cape12*, Craig Whittington2, Marta Buszewicz3, Paul Wallace3 and Lisa Underwood4

Author Affiliations

1 Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, St Pancras Hospital, 4 St Pancras Way, London NW1 0PE, UK

2 Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

3 Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health, University College London Medical School, 2nd floor, Holborn Union Building, Archway Campus, Highgate Hill, London, N19 5LW, UK

4 Health Service and Population Research Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK

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BMC Medicine 2010, 8:38  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-8-38

Published: 25 June 2010



Psychological therapies provided in primary care are usually briefer than in secondary care. There has been no recent comprehensive review comparing their effectiveness for common mental health problems. We aimed to compare the effectiveness of different types of brief psychological therapy administered within primary care across and between anxiety, depressive and mixed disorders.


Meta-analysis and meta-regression of randomized controlled trials of brief psychological therapies of adult patients with anxiety, depression or mixed common mental health problems treated in primary care compared to primary care treatment as usual.


Thirty-four studies, involving 3962 patients, were included. Most were of brief cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT; n = 13), counselling (n = 8) or problem solving therapy (PST; n = 12). There was differential effectiveness between studies of CBT, with studies of CBT for anxiety disorders having a pooled effect size [d -1.06, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.31 to -0.80] greater than that of studies of CBT for depression (d -0.33, 95% CI -0.60 to -0.06) or studies of CBT for mixed anxiety and depression (d -0.26, 95% CI -0.44 to -0.08). Counselling for depression and mixed anxiety and depression (d -0.32, 95% CI -0.52 to -0.11) and problem solving therapy (PST) for depression and mixed anxiety and depression (d -0.21, 95% CI -0.37 to -0.05) were also effective. Controlling for diagnosis, meta-regression found no difference between CBT, counselling and PST.


Brief CBT, counselling and PST are all effective treatments in primary care, but effect sizes are low compared to longer length treatments. The exception is brief CBT for anxiety, which has comparable effect sizes.