To compare the effectiveness of community mental health nurse (CMHN) problem-solving and generic CMHN care, against usual general practitioner (GP) care in reducing symptoms, alleviating problems, and improving social functioning and quality of life for people living in the community with common mental disorders; and to undertake a cost comparison of each CMHN treatment compared with usual GP care.
A pragmatic, randomised controlled trial with three arms: CMHN problem-solving, generic CMHN care and usual GP care.
General practices in two southern English counties were included in the study. CMHNs were employed by local NHS trusts providing community mental health services.
Participants were GP patients aged 18--65 years with a new episode of anxiety, depression or reaction to life difficulties and had to score at least 3 points on the General Health Questionnaire-12 screening tool. Symptoms had to be present for a minimum of 4 weeks but no longer than 6 months.
Patients were randomised to one of three groups: (1) CMHN problem-solving treatment, (2) generic CMHN treatment, or (3) usual GP care. All three groups of patients remained free to consult their GPs throughout the course of the study, and could be prescribed psychotropic drug treatments.
Main outcome measures
Patients were assessed at baseline, and 8 weeks and 26 weeks after randomisation. The primary outcome measure was psychological symptoms measured on the Clinical Interview Schedule -- Revised. Other measures included social functioning, health-related quality of life, problem severity and satisfaction. The economic outcomes were evaluated with a cost--utility analysis.
Twenty-four CMHNs were trained to provide problem-solving under supervision, and another 29 were referred patients for generic support. In total, 247 patients were randomised to the three arms of the study, referred by 98 GPs in 62 practices. All three groups of patients were greatly improved by the 8-week follow-up. No significant differences were found between the groups at 8 weeks or 26 weeks in symptoms, social functioning or quality of life. Greater satisfaction with treatment was found in the CMHN groups. CMHN care represented a significant additional health service cost and there were no savings in sickness absence.
The study found that specialist mental health nurse support is no better than support from GPs for patients with anxiety, depression and reactions to life difficulties. The results suggest that healthcare providers could consider adopting policies of restricting referrals of unselected patients with common mental disorders to specialist CMHNs, although there may be other roles in primary care that CMHNs could play effectively. Further research should address the predictors of chronicity in common mental disorders and target extra treatment. More research is also needed into the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of problem-solving treatment for other disorders, of facilitated self-help treatments for common mental disorders and of CMHN care for people with severe and enduring mental illnesses, as well as the prevention of mental disorders.