Psychological, social and welfare interventions for psychological health and well-being of torture survivors

Patel N, Kellezi B, Williams ACDC. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 11. 

This article is a systematic literature review, assessing the beneficial and adverse effects of psychological, social and welfare interventions for torture survivors, and comparing these effects with those reported by active and inactive controls.

Nine RCTs were included in this review. All were of psychological interventions; none provided social or welfare interventions. The nine trials provided data for 507 adults; none involved children or adolescents. Eight of the nine studies described individual treatment, and one discussed group treatment. Six trials were conducted in Europe, and three in different African countries. Most people were refugees in their thirties and forties; most met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the outset. Four trials used narrative exposure therapy (NET), one cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and the other four used mixed methods for trauma symptoms, one of which included reconciliation methods. Five interventions were compared with active controls, such as psychoeducation; four used treatment as usual or waiting list/no treatment; we analysed all control conditions together. Duration of therapy varied from one hour to longer than 20 hours with a median of around 12 to 15 hours. All trials reported effects on distress and on PTSD, and two reported on quality of life. Five studies followed up participants for at least six months.

No immediate benefits of psychological therapy were noted in comparison with controls in terms of our primary outcome of distress (usually depression), nor for PTSD symptoms, PTSD caseness, or quality of life. At six-month follow-up, three NET and one CBT study (86 participants) showed moderate effect sizes for intervention over control in reduction of distress (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.63, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.07 to -0.19) and of PTSD symptoms (SMD -0.52, 95% CI -0.97 to -0.07). However, the quality of evidence was very low, and risk of bias resulted from researcher/therapist allegiance to treatment methods, effects of uncertain asylum status of some people and real-time non-standardised translation of assessment measures. No measures of adverse events were described, nor of participation, social functioning, quantity of social or family relationships, proxy measures by third parties or satisfaction with treatment. Too few studies were identified for review authors to attempt sensitivity analyses.

Very low-quality evidence suggests no differences between psychological therapies and controls in terms of immediate effects on post-traumatic symptoms, distress or quality of life; however, NET and CBT were found to confer moderate benefits in reducing distress and PTSD symptoms over the medium term (six months after treatment). Evidence was of very low quality, mainly because non-standardised assessment methods using interpreters were applied, and sample sizes were very small. Most eligible trials also revealed medium to high risk of bias. Further, attention to the cultural appropriateness of interventions or to their psychometric qualities was inadequate, and assessment measures used were unsuitable. As such, these findings should be interpreted with caution.

No data were available on whether symptom reduction enabled improvements in quality of life, participation in community life, or in social and family relationships in the medium term. Details of adverse events and treatment satisfaction were not available immediately after treatment nor in the medium term. Future research should aim to address these gaps in the evidence and should include larger sample sizes when possible. Problems of torture survivors need to be defined far more broadly than by PTSD symptoms, and recognition given to the contextual influences of being a torture survivor, including as an asylum seeker or refugee, on psychological and social health.

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