Joel Town: “Teaching the ‘intensive’ is the central challenge”

This is an interview with Joel Town. Joel Town is one of the most important ISTDP researchers out there, being the first author of several empirical studies of ISTDP. Among them is the most rigorous ISTDP study thusfar, the “Halifax Depression Study“. He is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University, a lead researcher at the Halifax Centre for Emotions and Health and he runs Dynamic Health Psychological Services. Last year, he visited Göteborg for a two-day workshop on treatment-resistant depression. We had a chat with him about where ISTDP is at and where it should go.

joel town portrait
Joel Town

How did it feel to present to a swedish audience? 
As you know, this was actually my first time both visiting Sweden as well as teaching. I was very happy to see some old friends who I’ve met at past conferences, meet many engaging new colleagues, as well as make some new friends. It was a pleasure to be with you in Sweden and to see how your ISTDP community is growing!

You presented some thought-provoking ideas for modifying the graded format of ISTDP, managing the thresholds differently. Can you explain your perspective on this? And how is it different from the standard graded approach?
With the graded format, I was trained to first think about the use of ‘pressure’ to mobilize complex feelings. Next, we look for a threshold to detect when the patient is struggling to intellectually hold in mind complex emotional states and instead become flooded with anxiety. At this point, the therapist helps to reduce anxiety using different strategies. One observation around the clinical application of this approach that I spoke about during the workshop is how easily we can teach the process as though there are explicit “go” and “stop” signs.

The concept of a threshold can be helpful when initially learning this approach in order to avoid too much anxiety being triggered. But viewing patient tolerance more as a Threshold Window can allow therapists to involve patients more in the process, and help them better learn to self-regulate. I’d describe this more as principle we can be aware of during learning, teaching and supervision that can allow therapists to begin to incorporate what Allan Abbass has called “bracing” interventions. This can be done instead of formal recapping or other anxiety regulating interventions. 

You offered some modifications to the phase of inquiry that were very well received by the swedish audience. How did that come about?
It’s something that I noticed over time when I was reviewing trial therapy tapes. I felt like I was missing something if I wasn’t asking patients about feelings, clarifying anxiety or defences within the first few minutes. However, there were other occasions when I was using these kinds of interventions early in sessions – but I would be left questioning why am I doing this and how helpful is was. This made me think about some of the learning challenging when teaching. And it made me rethink the timing of the transition from ‘inquiry’ to phases of structured ‘pressure’ in ISTDP.

In Gothenburg, I showed a tape in which the patient came into a trial therapy exhibiting a mixed bag of responses that we might consider examples of unconscious anxiety and defence combined. In the tape, I didn’t comment explicitly on these processes for around 10 minutes and instead stuck with a phase of inquiry. The subsequent group discussion raised some good questions about the importance of the pace and timing of therapist interventions early in sessions. The audience appeared to appreciate me saying that it isn’t always entirely clear what is happening moment-to-moment, so collecting more data from sitting with the patient can be helpful.

I think in our effort to provide and teach “intensive short-term” treatments we can easily prioritise the need to intervene. We even sometimes intervene before we understand why we are intervening. During the 2-day seminar it felt like we were able to have a very a constructive discussion about these issues. My thought is that these are likely learning and training challenges in ISTDP as much as they are about technical elements related to the phase of inquiry in treatment.

What are you struggling to learn as a clinician right now?
I have begun seeing a series of patients with chronic symptoms that have an explicit behavioural component such as OCD (e.g., compulsive behaviours), Tourette’s and other tic-based presentations. There hasn’t been a lot written on this topic around the use of ISTDP and in my experience these cases present infrequently to dynamically orientated therapists. It’s been a challenge and learning curve to think about how to adapt and tailor a dynamic approach to specifically target change in symptoms that involve repetitive behavioural patterns.

For instance, in ISTDP I would aim to help a patient see harmful patterns and behaviours so that they become motivated to interrupt them independently. In contrast, a traditional CBT exposure and response prevention approach involves a more directive therapist stance in advising a patient to prevent the ‘response’. In the cases I have treated so far, I am struck by how much emphasis there has needed to be on an explicit therapist stance towards response prevention. I think it is a subtle but significant shift for the ISTDP therapist to focus on interrupting an explicit in-session behaviour like a vocal tic in contrast to purely intrapsychic defences.

What are some of the current challenges for the further development and dissemination of ISTDP globally?
One of the challenges for the dissemination of any psychotherapy is having the means to effectively train others to deliver the treatment. Over time, through these dissemination efforts, if enough clinicians can be trained to become both effective therapists and trainers themselves, there reaches a critical mass at which point the treatment is readily accessible for patients. There are probably only a handful of therapies which can be said to have achieved this globally.

The manualisation of psychotherapies has been a key part of what has made this possible. However, the development of treatment manuals to treating mental health as discreet “disorders” defined by symptom clusters is problematic. I think this paradigm has contributed to the numbers of patients who fail to remit or relapse following psychotherapy generally. In contrast, I think ISTDP is best described as an approach that is fundamentally built to achieve ambitious changes in personality. While my own experience as a researcher and clinician confirm that this is possible, as with other therapies, therapist factors and patient factors contribute significantly to outcomes. 

I think the ISTDP Core Training programs conducted in the last decade indicate that there are many elements to ISTDP that can be taught to a broad group of therapists. The programs teach the delivery of effective treatment that is likely comparable to the outcomes achieved in other treatments. However, my current view is that I think there are other elements of ISTDP that are very difficult to learn, particularly given the training resources typically available to most therapists (e.g., access to and frequency of supervision).

If some of the more difficult-to-learn treatment elements were emphasized less, akin to dropping the ‘intensive’ from ISTDP, I think we would have a treatment that could be more easily disseminated globally. It is arguable that in doing so, we could compromise the nature of the changes possible in treatment by de-emphasizing the elements that promote personality level changes. This is a question that would need addressing empirically.

Do you think we should drop the “intensive” then? Or what do you propose? 
I don’t think the field needs a new treatment with a new acronym. What I am pointing out is that there are different elements to ISTDP that require different competencies to be taught and adequately mastered by a therapist. If attempting to gain competency in multiple domains limits the transferability of the treatment, I am proposing that therapists can be trained and encouraged to utilise specific elements as they are able.

This type of learning environment might help therapists to flourish and grow rather than to become discouraged and drop-out. Perhaps within the field of psychotherapy training there is a risk that in an effort to maintain the presumed integrity of the treatment, it is very possible that the alliance between therapists and their trainers/teachers can be adversely effected. I think this is a central challenge around the dissemination of ISTDP.

Do you have any upcoming research in the pipeline?
I am just preparing a manuscript describing the 12-month post treatment outcomes and a cost effectiveness analysis from the Halifax Depression Study. This a randomized controlled trial that compared the outcomes of time-limited ISTDP against the effects of secondary care community mental health team treatment for treatment resistant depression (TRD). We published the initial findings in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2017 showing ISTDP is an efficacious treatment for TRD with 36% of patients reaching full-remission at the end of treatment. The follow-up findings are also very encouraging. 

What’s your vision for the future of ISTDP? 
Currently there are very few academic centres around the world in which ISTDP research is being conducted. For the growth of any treatment, research is an important part of dissemination alongside offering the possibility of innovation in methods and technique. In particularly, as a clinical psychologist and researcher having both trained and conducted clinical trials in ISTDP, I think my understanding of some the teaching and learning challenges around ISTDP has been enhanced greatly by this work. Moving forward, I would hope there are increasingly more opportunities for people at all stages of learning to be involved in ISTDP training and research within academic centres of excellence.  

If you enjoyed this Joel Town interview, you might find our other interviews interesting. You can find the whole list here. Below you’ll find a list of five of our most recent interviews: