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Last Updated on : 08th Oct, 2012

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What is Evidence-Based Practice?

When parents/guardians look for mental health treatment for a child or adolescent, it is common to search for a therapist who may have availability in their schedule, affordable fees, or is covered by a specific insurance plan. However, it is also important to ask about the type of treatment that a mental health care provider will offer for their child.

Because not all mental health treatments for young people are equally helpful; some therapies may work better than others.

Mental health care providers (i.e., psychotherapists, such as psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists) use different treatment approaches to help children and adolescents who are experiencing mental health problems. Some treatment approaches have a strong backing in scientific evidence and other treatments have less evidence supporting them. Therapists who use treatments based on science use what is called "evidence-based practice" (EBP), that is their way of doing business is based on using scientific evidence. Similarly, treatments with scientific evidence supporting them are called evidence-based treatments (EBTs).

Unfortunately, there is not as much public awareness about EBP and EBTs. As a result, families often do not know to ask whether or not a therapist knows EBTs. Consequently, children and adolescents may remain in long-term psychotherapy for many months or even years without their parents or guardians ever realizing that EBT options are available. Note that EBTs  are listed as 'Best Practice' and 'preferred' approaches for mental health symptom treatment by both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

What are EBTs for children and adolescents?

As explained above, EBTs are treatments that are based directly on scientific evidence. In other words, research studies have shown that some treatments work better than others for specific problems that children and adolescents experience. Treatments are compared in large studies called clinical trials that involve dozens of children in each study. These children all have a similar main problem, like depression or delinquent behavior. The researchers randomly assign the children to receive Treatment A or Treatment B (for example). If Treatment A helps children more, then Treatment A gains in stature as a potential EBT. As more studies support Treatment A, its stature grows as an EBT.

In this way, psychologists and other mental health care professionals are dedicated to offering the best level of care available by constantly evaluating and comparing the effects of various treatments for a variety of child and adoloscents mental health problems. In other words, psychologists wish to discover which treatment is likely to work best for each individual. While there are many definitions one could use to categorize the level of research support for a psychological treatment, the one utilized by was adapted from ideas outlined by a group of expert clinical psychologists (Chambless et al., 1998).  We use a five level system, where level 1 is the best support, meaning that the treatment has very strong evidence—in other words, it has worked well in many studies. As one example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a level 1 treatment (i.e., “Works Well”) for child anxiety. Click here to learn more about how research support is defined and evaluated.


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