Behavioural therapies versus other psychological therapies for depression

Major depression is one of the common mental illnesses characterised by persistent low mood and loss of interest in pleasurable activities, accompanied by a range of symptoms, including weight loss, insomnia, fatigue, loss of energy, inappropriate guilt, poor concentration and morbid thoughts of death. Whilst antidepressants remain the mainstay of treatment for depression in healthcare settings, psychological therapies are still important alternative or additional interventions for depressive disorders. Nowadays, a diverse range of psychological therapies are available (such as cognitive-behavioural therapies, behavioural therapies, psychodynamic therapies, humanistic therapies and integrative therapies). It is very important to know whether one type of psychological therapy is more effective than another, and to know which psychological therapy is the most effective treatment for depression. In this review, we focused on one of these—behavioural therapies (BT)—because they are relatively simple to deliver, and interest in them has recently been renewed. Behavioural therapies are usually based purely on operant and respondent principles, aimed to change the patient's depressive mood by changing his or her behaviour patterns. Whilst a number of BT models have been developed, we categorised the following approaches as behavioural therapies in this review: behavioural therapy (based on Lewinsohn's model, which focused on increasing pleasant activities), behavioural activation (originated from behavioural component of cognitive-behavioural therapy and based on Jacobson's work in 1996), social skills training/assertiveness training and relaxation therapy.

In this review, we assessed the efficacy and acceptability of behavioural therapies compared with all other psychological therapies in the treatment of acute phase depression (neither long-term nor treatment-resistant depression) in adults. Twenty-five randomised controlled trails were included in this review. The quality of evidence in our review is low because of issues with the design of the studies that we found and lack of precision in our results. Although we found that behavioural therapies and all other psychological therapies are equally effective and acceptable, more research is needed to confirm this finding.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found low- to moderate-quality evidence that behavioural therapies and other psychological therapies are equally effective. The current evidence base that evaluates the relative benefits and harms of behavioural therapies is very weak. This limits our confidence in both the size of the effect and its precision for our key outcomes related to response and withdrawal. Studies recruiting larger samples with improved reporting of design and fidelity to treatment would improve the quality of evidence in this review.

Read the full abstract...

Behavioural therapies represent one of several categories of psychological therapies that are currently used in the treatment of depression. However, the effectiveness and acceptability of behavioural therapies for depression compared with other psychological therapies remain unclear.


1. To examine the effects of all BT approaches compared with all other psychological therapy approaches for acute depression.

2. To examine the effects of different BT approaches (behavioural therapy, behavioural activation, social skills training and relaxation training) compared with all other psychological therapy approaches for acute depression.

3. To examine the effects of all BT approaches compared with different psychological therapy approaches (CBT, third wave CBT, psychodynamic, humanistic and integrative psychological therapies) for acute depression.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Depression Anxiety and Neurosis Group Trials Specialised Register (CCDANCTR, 31/07/2013), which includes relevant randomised controlled trials from The Cochrane Library (all years), EMBASE, (1974-), MEDLINE (1950-) and PsycINFO (1967-). We also searched CINAHL (May 2010) and PSYNDEX (June 2010) and reference lists of the included studies and relevant reviews for additional published and unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials that compared behavioural therapies with other psychological therapies for acute depression in adults.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two or more review authors independently identified studies, assessed trial quality and extracted data. We contacted study authors for additional information.

Main results: 

Twenty-five trials involving 955 participants compared behavioural therapies with one or more of five other major categories of psychological therapies (cognitive-behavioural, third wave cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, humanistic and integrative therapies). Most studies had a small sample size and were assessed as being at unclear or high risk of bias. Compared with all other psychological therapies together, behavioural therapies showed no significant difference in response rate (18 studies, 690 participants, risk ratio (RR) 0.97, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.86 to 1.09) or in acceptability (15 studies, 495 participants, RR of total dropout rate 1.02, 95% CI 0.65 to 1.61). Similarly, in comparison with each of the other classes of psychological therapies, low-quality evidence showed better response to cognitive-behavioural therapies than to behavioural therapies (15 studies, 544 participants, RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.83 to 1.05) and low-quality evidence of better response to behavioural therapies over psychodynamic therapies (2 studies, 110 participants, RR 1.24, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.82).

When compared with integrative therapies and humanistic therapies, only one study was included in each comparison, and the analysis showed no significant difference between behavioural therapies and integrative or humanistic therapies.