The clinical effectiveness of counselling in primary care: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Psychol Med. 2003 Feb;33(2):203-15. doi: 10.1017/s0033291702006979.


Background: Counselling is frequently used in the management of common mental disorders (such as anxiety and depression) in primary care. However, there are concerns over the clinical effectiveness of counselling, both in comparison with usual general practitioner care, and with other treatments such as alternative psychological therapies and antidepressant treatment. This study used systematic review methodology to assess the current evidence-base.

Method: A systematic literature review located seven trials of relevance, comparing counselling with usual general practitioner care, cognitive-behaviour therapy and antidepressant medication. Data on internal and external validity were examined using a standardized quality rating scheme. Data concerning the impact of counselling on symptoms of anxiety and depression were pooled using meta-analytical procedures.

Results: The main analyses showed significantly greater clinical effectiveness of counselling compared with usual general practitioner care in the short-term (standardized mean difference -0.28, 95% CI -0.43 to -0.13, N=741, six trials) but not the long-term (standardized mean difference -0.07, 95% CI -0.26 to 0.12, N=447, four trials). Sensitivity analyses were undertaken to test the robustness of the results.

Conclusion: Counselling is associated with modest improvement in short-term outcome compared with usual general practitioner care, and thus may be a useful addition to mental health services in primary care.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Counseling*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome