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Primary Care

Antidepressant drugs and generic counselling for treatment of major depression in primary care: randomised trial with patient preference arms

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 31 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:772
  1. Clair Chilvers, professor (Clair.Chilvers{at},
  2. Michael Dewey, senior lecturera,
  3. Katherine Fielding, lecturera,
  4. Virginia Gretton, research assistanta,
  5. Paul Miller, lecturer in health economicsa,
  6. Ben Palmer, research associatea,
  7. David Weller, professorc,
  8. Richard Churchill, lecturerb,
  9. Idris Williams, professorb,
  10. Navjot Bedi, specialist registrar in psychiatryd,
  11. Conor Duggan, professore,
  12. Alan Lee, consultant psychiatrist and special senior lecturerf,
  13. Glynn Harrison, professorg

    for the Counselling versus Antidepressants in Primary Care Study Group.

  1. a Trent Institute for Health Services Research, University of Nottingham Medical School, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham NG7 2UH
  2. b Division of General Practice, University of Nottingham Medical School, Queen's Medical Centre
  3. c Department of General Practice, University of Edinburgh, 20 West Richmond St, Edinburgh EH8 9DX
  4. d Division of Psychiatry, Nottingham Healthcare NHS Trust, Nottingham NG3 6AA
  5. e Division of Forensic Mental Health, University of Leicester, Arnold Lodge, Leicester LE5 0LE
  6. f Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital, Queen's Medical Centre
  7. g Division of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, Bristol BS2 8DZ
  1. Correspondence to: C Chilvers
  • Accepted 1 December 2000


Objectives: To compare the efficacy of antidepressant drugs and generic counselling for treating mild to moderate depression in general practice. To determine whether the outcomes were similar for patients with randomly allocated treatment and those expressing a treatment preference.

Design: Randomised controlled trial, with patient preference arms. Follow up at 8 weeks and 12 months and abstraction of GP case notes.

Setting: 31 general practices in Trent region.

Participants: Patients aged 18–70 who met research diagnostic criteria for major depression; 103 patients were randomised and 220 patients were recruited to the preference arms.

Main outcome measures: Difference in mean Beck depression inventory score; time to remission; global outcome assessed by a psychiatrist using all data sources; and research diagnostic criteria.

Results: At 12 months there was no difference between the mean Beck scores in the randomised arms. Combining the randomised and patient preference groups, the difference in Beck scores was 0.4 (95% confidence interval −2.7 to 3.5). Patients choosing counselling did better than those randomised to it (mean difference in Beck score 4.6, 0.0 to 9.2). There was no difference in the psychiatrist's overall assessment of outcome between any of the groups. 221/265 (83%) of participants with a known outcome had a remission. Median time to remission was shorter in the group randomised to antidepressants than the other three groups (2 months v 3 months). 33/221 (15%) patients had a relapse.

Conclusions: Generic counselling seems to be as effective as antidepressant treatment for mild to moderate depressive illness, although patients receiving antidepressants may recover more quickly. General practitioners should allow patients to have their preferred treatment.

What is already known on this topic

What is already known on this topic Antidepressants and specific psychological interventions are effective in major depression.

Generic counselling has not previously been compared with antidepressants in primary care

What this study adds

What this study adds 12 months after starting treatment, generic counselling is as effective as antidepressants

Patients treated with antidepressants may recover more quickly

Given a choice, more patients opt for counselling

Patients who choose counselling may benefit more than those with no strong preference


  • Funding NHS Executive Trent.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Accepted 1 December 2000
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