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Morita Therapy for depression (Morita Trial): an embedded qualitative study of acceptability
  1. Holly Victoria Rose Sugg,
  2. Julia Frost,
  3. David A Richards
  1. Medical School, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Holly Victoria Rose Sugg; h.v.s.sugg{at}exeter.ac.uk

Abstract

Objective To explore the views of UK-based recipients of Morita Therapy (MT) on the acceptability of MT.

Design Qualitative study nested within a pilot randomised controlled trial of MT (a Japanese psychological therapy largely unknown in the UK) versus treatment as usual, using post-treatment semistructured interviews analysed with a framework approach.

Setting and participants Participants who received MT as part of the Morita Trial, recruited for the trial from General Practice record searches in Devon, UK. Data from 16 participants were purposively sampled for analysis.

Results We identified five themes which, together, form a model of how different participants viewed and experienced MT. Overall, MT was perceived as acceptable by many participants who emphasised the value of the approach, often in comparison to other treatments they had tried. These participants highlighted how accepting and allowing difficulties as natural phenomena and shifting attention from symptoms to external factors had facilitated symptom reduction and a sense of empowerment. We found that how participants understood and related to the principles of MT, in light of their expectations of treatment, was significantly tied to the extent to which MT was perceived as acceptable. Our findings also highlighted the distinction between MT in principle and practice, with participants noting challenges of engaging with the process of therapy such as fear and discomfort around rest, needing sufficient support from the therapist and others, and the commitment of treatment.

Conclusions People in the UK can accept the premise of MT, and consider the approach beneficial and novel. Therefore, proceeding to a large-scale trial of MT is appropriate with minor modifications to our clinical protocol. Participants’ expectations and understandings of treatment play a key role in acceptability, and future research may investigate these potential moderators of acceptability in MT.

Trial registration numberC ISRCTN17544090; Pre-results.

  • Morita Therapy
  • depression
  • major depressive disorder
  • qualitative
  • acceptability

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Strengths and limitations of this study

  • This is the first study to explore the views of UK-based patients about Morita Therapy (MT).

  • The use of qualitative methods generated rich insights into participants’ views of MT, informing the development of a model of how different participants engaged with and experienced the approach.

  • Our sample size was constrained by the number of Morita Trial participants meeting our sampling criteria. However, our purposive and theoretically driven sampling framework enabled us to explore both the breadth and depth of data, and identify issues with acceptability in particular.

  • The analysis may not have readily reflected how participants’ views changed over time and some challenges were encountered in establishing how acceptability was shaped by other factors and/or vice versa.

Introduction and objectives

Depression and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) are the two most common mental health disorders: lifetime prevalence is estimated at 16.2% and 5.7% for depression and GAD, respectively.1–3 Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is often chronic, recurrent, comorbid with other conditions and associated with a high risk of suicide.2 4–7 Between 2011 and 2030, the effect of depression on global economic output is predicted to be US$5.36 trillion.8 Medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have the strongest evidence-base for treating these conditions.9 10 However, many people are resistant to such interventions, with between one-third and half of patients not responding to treatment.11–20 Thus, there is a scope to test new potentially effective treatments.

Morita Therapy (MT) is a Japanese psychotherapy developed by Dr Shōma Morita in 1919 and informed by Zen Buddhist principles.21 22 Key components are outlined in table 1. It is a holistic approach aiming to improve everyday functioning rather than targeting specific symptoms.23 Through conceptualising unpleasant emotions as part of the natural ecology of human experience, MT seeks to re-orientate patients in the natural world and potentiate their natural healing capacity.21 Morita therapists thus help patients to move away from symptom preoccupation and combat, which are considered to exacerbate symptoms and interfere with this natural recovery process.24 By helping patients to accept symptoms as natural phenomena which ebb and flow as a matter of course, MT is in sharp contrast to the focus of established Western approaches on symptom control.25 Thus, MT has potential to provide UK patients with a distinct alternative to current National Institute For Health And Clinical Excellence (NICE)-recommended treatment options.

Table 1

Key components of MT

The Morita Trial, a mixed methods feasibility study guided by a pragmatic philosophy26 and encompassing a pilot randomised controlled trial and embedded qualitative interviews, was the first trial of MT in the UK. The trial received ethical approval from the National Research Ethics Service South West—Frenchay (reference 15/SW/0103). In all, 68 participants with major depressive disorder, with or without anxiety disorder(s), were recruited through General Practice record searches in Devon, UK and randomised to receive treatment as usual (TAU) or TAU plus 8–12 sessions of MT delivered by trained therapists at the University of Exeter’s AccEPT clinic following the UK MT outpatient protocol developed by the study team.27 The trial established that a large-scale MT trial is feasible with minor modifications to the pilot trial protocol, and that MT shows promise in treating depression. The protocol (see online supplementary file 1) and quantitative results are reported elsewhere.28 29

Supplemental material

Here, we report the results of the embedded qualitative study designed to address the clinical uncertainties30 associated with a large-scale trial. As the acceptability of MT in the UK was unknown, gathering data on this was essential to inform any necessary amendments to our clinical protocol and ensure that the treatment administered in any large-scale trial is acceptable. Thus, our research question was as follows: How acceptable is MT to participants?

Methods

Design

In-depth semistructured interviews with participants who received MT within the Morita Trial, as part of a mixed methods embedded design.31 For the quantitative (reported elsewhere29) and qualitative components, we collected data concurrently and analysed data sequentially (with quantitative data informing our sampling of qualitative interviews for analysis: see below).

Recruitment and data collection

At baseline, we asked participants whether they would be willing to be interviewed about their experiences of therapy. On therapy completion, we invited consenting participants allocated to MT (n=34) to interview, conducted at University of Exeter premises or the participant’s home, depending on participant preference.

We developed a semistructured topic guide (table 2) based on recent mental health trials addressing similar questions,19 32 33 MT literature and our MT optimisation study findings.27 Topics included participants’ thoughts and feelings before treatment, understandings and experiences of treatment, barriers to treatment and mechanisms of change, which were initially explored using open-ended questions defining these areas34 (table 2: topic of discussion). While our topic guide thus helped to ensure consistency in data collection and allow for comparison across participants, interviews were interactive, responsive and flexible in order to pursue unanticipated views and the most salient details for each participant34 35: individual responses were probed to investigate participants’ meanings, enabling both the exploration of participants’ views on pre-defined topics of interest and the elicitation of participants’ own themes.36 The probe areas included in our topic guide (table 2) thus served as an aide-memoire for the interviewer to ensure discussion of each element of interest, and informed follow-up questions which were asked in a flexible manner dependent on the information already provided by the interviewee.34 37 Following the first three interviews, we amended the topic guide to include probe areas based on the views already elicited.

Table 2

Topic guide

With participants’ permission, interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were checked for accuracy. We made field notes during each interview and summarised these at interview completion, which helped inform topic guide amendments, facilitated sampling and were referred to alongside transcripts during analysis.

Sampling

Using a nested sampling design, we analysed data from a subsample of interviews.38 39 This approach enabled us to purposively select ‘key informants’ [38 p.240] on acceptability according to theoretically driven criteria deemed important in answering our research question.39 40 These criteria were as follows: (1) treatment adherence, given the potential for this to be related to views of therapy; (2) whether participants demonstrated a response to treatment (ie, Patient Health Questionnaire 941 score <10 at follow-up), given the potential for participants’ views to be confounded by their degree of symptom improvement. Our objective was to include a quota of three participants within each subgroup in the resulting sampling matrix (table 3).39 We therefore selected participants in order to achieve maximum variation according to these criteria, and aimed to both capture the breadth of views on acceptability and explore the depth and diversity of views within each subgroup.35 40 42 For participants who both completed and responded to treatment, we further purposively sampled data according to additional criteria deemed potentially relevant: presence or not of GAD at baseline; participants’ experience or not of CBT; participants’ gender; therapist.

Table 3

Sampling matrix

In determining the sample size, we prioritised the study purpose in order to achieve sampling adequacy: we estimated the number of participants required to sufficiently answer the research question by achieving both breadth and depth of information.35 42–45 This estimation was informed by the concept of data saturation46–48 and related findings49 which suggested that an analysis of 12 interviews could provide a thorough picture of participants’ views. The final sample size was informed by the heterogeneity of the population, the number of selection criteria and the number of participants meeting these criteria.35

Analysis

We analysed data in NVivo1050 using Framework analysis35 to allow for an abductive approach. We achieved familiarisation with the data through reading transcripts, and following the guidance of Miles, Huberman and Saldana39 completed first cycle coding and developed an initial thematic framework as batches of transcripts were analysed, iteratively combining the topic guide and the overall impression of the narratives in context. Using this framework, we completed second cycle coding on individual transcripts and analysed them thematically using a constant comparison approach.39 51 We charted data in analytic/framework matrices, as per the Framework approach,35 to allow within and across case analyses and the exploration of relationships between themes; throughout this process, we interpreted data with the aid of thematic maps to make sense of participants’ perspectives, understand and structure the relationships between themes, and conceptualise the overall picture of participants’ views.35 52–54 We explored negative cases and provided explanations of variance,55 ensuring all observations relevant to the research question were incorporated. Two authors (HVRS and JF) conducted data analysis, each coding raw data (HVRS all data; JF a subset) and meeting regularly to develop themes and discuss data interpretation.

Patient involvement

The Morita Trial follows on from an iterative programme of work conducted to develop our MT clinical protocol, whereby we optimised MT according to the views of potential patients and therapists.27 The patient materials were developed on the basis of consultation with a Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) expert and similar materials used in other mental health trials which had received feedback from PPI groups (eg, PenPIG http://clahrc-peninsula.nihr.ac.uk/). A former trial participant, who expressed an interest in supporting our research and will be involved in the further dissemination of results, has co-written a summary sheet explaining our results in lay terms which has been sent to consenting former trial participants.

Results

From November 2015 to January 2017, one author (HVRS) completed 28 interviews with MT participants lasting between 24 and 93 min. We did not interview six participants because they could not be contacted (n=3; 8.8%); declined (n=2; 5.9%) or had moved away (n=1; 2.9%). We sampled 16 interviews for analysis (table 3): these included all participants who did not complete and/or did not respond to treatment (n=10) and six who completed and responded to treatment. Thus, only additional participants who both completed and responded to treatment were not sampled for analysis. Participant characteristics are provided in table 4.

Table 4

Participant characteristics

Participants’ views were understood within five themes: (1) the impact of incompatible expectations and understandings; (2) identifying with the principles of MT: receptivity and relevance; (3) approaching and understanding MT as a process; (4) facilitating the process: (overcoming) challenges and barriers and (5) the value and impact of MT. Each theme encompassed a number of constituent themes (figure 1). These themes were developed to explore and explain the relationships between the constituent themes and the acceptability of MT, within a model of how MT was experienced by different participants.

During analysis, it was clear that participants’ views comprised different categories which linked to acceptability. Particularly salient was the sense that participants’ expectations and understandings either facilitated or hindered their engagement with MT. To capture this, the first three themes essentially convey different typologies of participants’ approaches towards and experiences of treatment: theme 1 contrasts themes 2 and 3, with participants’ accounts generally falling within either theme 1 or themes 2 and 3. Thus, participants who brought expectations of treatment which were inconsistent with MT generally misunderstood the approach and considered it to be unacceptable (theme 1), with a failure to either identify with the MT principles or understand treatment as a process to progress through. In contrast, those whose prior expectations and experiences facilitated their identification with the MT principles (theme 2) typically engaged with the approach from the offset, with their overwhelmingly positive experiences of treatment tied to their understanding of MT as a process (theme 3) and leading to positive accounts of the value and impact of MT (theme 5).

Theme 4 describes the difficulties participants experienced engaging with therapy on a practical rather than conceptual level. While whether such difficulties amounted to barriers to continuing treatment was often moderated by themes 1–3 (participants with incompatible expectations and understandings of treatment were less likely to tolerate such difficulties), this theme also captures how for some participants the principles of MT may be acceptable (ie, they identify with the principles as per theme 2) while the process of treatment is not. Thus, the relationship between this theme and the preceding themes highlights a key thread throughout participants’ accounts and this model of MT: the distinction between MT in principle and practice. Overall, while an ability to identify with the principles manifested as highly important in seemingly priming participants for MT, the challenges of translating these principles into a process which is feasible to engage with (as per theme 4) further shaped acceptability.

Figure 1 illustrates the relationships between themes and how these shape an overall picture of engagement with, and acceptability and impact of, MT. This model is not intended to provide a representative account of acceptability across the themes: theme 1, in which the most negative views are described, is dedicated to the accounts of a minority of participants who discontinued treatment and were purposively sampled to explore any issues with acceptability.

Participants’ trial ID numbers are included in brackets after quotes.

Theme 1: the impact of incompatible expectations and understandings

Some participants demonstrated discrepancies between MT and their expectations of treatment; expectations which focused on seeking a solution for symptoms (constituent theme (a)) or exploring and expressing the self (constituent theme (b)). Participants also indicated how such expectations can feed the construction of rationales for treatment components which are inconsistent with MT (constituent theme (c)). As such, MT fails to achieve its assigned purpose, and/or fails to provide participants with the approach they seek. This theme contrasts with others: participants’ accounts typically fall either within theme 1 or themes 2, 3 and 5.

(a)Seeking a solution for symptoms

Several participants expressed a desire for therapy to provide a cure, answers or techniques to remove symptoms. Accordingly, participants resisted the underlying premise of MT to allow both pleasant and unpleasant internal states as natural and inevitable: their goal was to eliminate the unpleasant. These participants typically appeared to view the therapist as a holder of expert knowledge and abilities: someone who should ‘fix’ them or impart powerful techniques, with a sense of handing responsibility for both improvement and understanding therapy over to the therapist.

It’s like a computer; you would replace the chip, why can’t you do it in your head? It would just make you feel better… Why can’t I be happy all the time instead of having one day good, one bad! (MT28)

(b)Exploring and expressing the self

Several participants expressed hopes that treatment would provide in-depth exploration, analysis and discussion of their difficulties.

I was hoping it was like a situation where I could open myself up… analysing why, you know, how I’m feeling…or why you feel bad. (MT61)

These expectations shaped views of MT, particularly Fumon (therapists’ inattention to symptoms), with a sense that this somewhat stifled participants’ self-expression and desire for someone to talk to and understand them. Thus, participants seeking a more exploratory and analytical approach felt somewhat ‘shut down’ (MT54) by and disappointed in MT.

(c)Failing at the wrong job: the substitution of rationale

For participants whose accounts fall within the constituent themes above, their expectations often shaped misunderstandings of the purpose of MT. In particular, participants typically substituted the rationale for rest (which is, primarily, to experience the natural ebb and flow of internal states) with one more consistent with their preconceptions. For example, a participant who sought a cure considered rest unable to help them ‘conquer’ their depression (MT51). Others considered rest an opportunity to have a relaxing ‘break’ from symptoms. Alternatively, a participant whose expectations focused on in-depth self-analysis, potentially on ‘an unconscious level’, had the following recollections of rest:

They said that we were gonna analyse your sleeping thing and arrange for you to sleep for a certain time… Actually planning something like that was really like, well, ‘this isn’t gonna work’. (MT61)

Thus, participants were assigning a MT incongruent purpose to rest; the achievement of which rest was not intended or able to fulfil. In turn, participants expressed a sense of both themselves and the therapy having ‘failed’ (MT19).

Theme 2: Identifying with the principles of MT: receptivity and relevance

In contrast to theme 1, many participants described approaching MT with insights, experiences and expectations which facilitated their identification with the MT principles, such as the underlying premise of accepting unpleasant thoughts and emotions (constituent theme (a)) and/or particular treatment components (constituent theme (b)).

(a)Readiness to accept

In recalling what appealed to them about MT before treatment, many participants expressed a sense of readiness to accept symptoms as part of oneself and life:

What attracted me was…it was a way of getting back to nature and realising that it’s a part of you and part of the human experience, and stop catastrophising everything. (MT63)

This ‘readiness to accept’ appeared to be facilitated by participants’ prior experiences of and insights into the nature of their difficulties: participants expressed understandings that symptoms could not be cured, they naturally come and go, and attempts to control them could worsen them. Thus, Moritian concepts of the ‘vicious cycle’ and the natural ebb and flow of internal states resonated strongly for such participants. These understandings were often shaped by previous treatment experience, typically CBT and counselling, which participants felt were too ‘focused on your past and trying to stop you having these thoughts and feelings’ (MT50) with potential to ‘feed into’ the vicious cycle.

[Morita Therapy] reinforced what I’d already hooked onto as a major problem for me… [CBT] was sort of feeding my need to fix myself… I came away from CBT going ‘I’ve got to stop thinking these things, I’ve got to think differently’ and you don’t have that kind of control over your thoughts, I don’t think. (MT45)

(b)Attraction to the features of MT

There was a sense from many participants that specific elements of MT ‘grabbed’ them from the offset and encouraged them to engage with the approach. Different features manifested as salient for different participants. Often, participants were attracted to ‘the use of the natural world’ (MT43), valuing both understanding human nature in relation to the natural world and a more literal engagement with nature. For others, key features included the focus on action-taking, understanding difficulties as reflections of underlying desires and working with the ‘authentic self’.

The thought of somebody nurturing you and slowly trying to find what things you’re looking for and what your values are and what little things you can go and do that are true to your authentic self… That’s what I’ve been looking for, for the last twenty years! (MT50)

Theme 3: approaching and understanding MT as a process

Many participants understood the MT components as a part of a naturally unfolding progressive journey (constituent theme (a)) providing accumulative opportunities for learning and re-focusing attention (constituent theme (b)) and for owning responsibility for change (constituent theme (c)), as opposed to attempting to isolate each component as a potential technique for overcoming symptoms (as per theme 1).

(a)Allowing a natural progression

Many participants described MT as providing a natural and gentle progression. Within this, participants conveyed a sense of helpful balance in the process: the four-phased structure and therapist guidance were coupled with an individualised pace and lack of directive instructions. This enabled participants to gradually ‘build up’ (MT16) themselves, their confidence and activity levels through achievable ‘bite-sized’ steps (MT43).

It was just this brilliant, gradual process, it sort of – the first stage broke me down, and then it was re-building me. (MT55)

Some participants also suggested that the purpose of treatment naturally unfolded through engagement with it, and highlighted the importance of MT as an experiential, rather than purely intellectual, process.

I’ve been allowed to discover it, guided gently and then I had to discover it for myself. And I think if you find it for yourself, and aren’t following lots of instructions, it’s almost like nature teaches you… It’s kind of hit me at a bit of a visceral level. (MT63)

(b)Methods for transition and learning

Many participants spoke of MT in terms of providing accumulative opportunities for learning about human nature and transitioning from engagement in the vicious cycle to an acceptance of symptoms and external focus of attention. Key to this was the incorporation of methods, such as rest, diaries and natural-world metaphors, for learning about the transient nature of emotions.

Being with your thoughts and then learning that thoughts come and go… You relate it to different seasons of the year, and storms come, but they pass, and the sea goes calm and all of those sorts of things, you realise that happens with you naturally as a human being. (MT50)

Participants also spoke of the phases and diaries as a means of highlighting and enabling action-taking, and of Fumon (therapists’ inattention to symptoms) as valuable for reducing the vicious cycle.

What was good about what [therapist] was doing was they would go ‘Stop’ as soon as I started that conversation, ‘You’re now scratching the itch’, you know, ‘Your mind wants to fix it and we’re gonna sit here and fix it for half an hour, and fixing it’s the problem, right?’… I did go away from – after a couple of sessions, thinking ‘What they’re actually saying is I’m just wasting my time’. (MT45)

In contrast to theme 1, these participants did not judge the treatment components in terms of how successful they were as tools for managing symptoms, but how successful they were as methods for learning and transition. This accurate understanding of the purpose of MT appeared crucial to participants’ willingness to tolerate challenging components (such as rest), and how successful participants considered therapy to be.

(c)Ownership of responsibility: making you think

Many participants described the value of MT, particularly therapists’ diary comments, partially in terms of ‘making them think’. There was a welcome sense that, rather than the therapist providing answers and imparting knowledge, they provided subtle cues which encouraged participants to take responsibility for their own learning and application of the MT principles.

With the use of the diary, it’s just picking out the salient points that are making you think… Instead of saying ‘you need to do this’… [My therapist] was allowing me to pick up on very subtle signals, so - in trying to do that for myself. (MT33)

Through this, participants spoke of their therapist facilitating a re-evaluation of themselves and their lives, and equipping them to proceed post-treatment with a sense of self-efficacy: a desire to ‘walk on my own with Morita in mind’ (MT63).

Theme 4: Facilitating the process: (overcoming) challenges and barriers

Participants described some challenges concerning the more practical rather than conceptual elements of MT, including fear and discomfort (constituent theme (a)), needing support from others (constituent theme (b)), needing sufficient therapist guidance (constituent theme (c)) and the commitment of treatment (constituent theme (d)). This highlights a distinction throughout participants’ accounts between identification with the MT principles and the feasibility of engaging with the MT process itself.

(a)Fear and discomfort

Participants described fear and discomfort they had experienced at times during therapy, predominantly in relation to rest. This typically connected to participants having avoided their thoughts and feelings for some time. Whether or not the challenges of rest were acceptable to participants, or developed into barriers to continuing therapy, was linked to participants’ expectations and understandings of treatment: those who assigned incorrect purposes to rest (as per theme 1) were disinclined to tolerate it; those who understood rest as a means of learning (as per theme 3) tended to persevere with it, acknowledging its importance.

[Therapist] said ‘Just go with it, let it all come out’, ‘cos before I tried my hardest to block it off. After 9 days I thought ‘Oh heck!’… But yeah, as I say, it worked. It wasn’t pleasant but when I got to the end of it I could see we’d done it…‘cos I learned that you can get through it and come out the other side. (MT55)

(b)Safety and support from others

Participants spoke of the need to feel safe, supported and encouraged by their significant others during therapy, with some describing a lack of support from others as a major factor in their decision to discontinue therapy. For one participant, their lack of personal safety and support led them to discontinue therapy despite their eagerness to continue, indicating the importance of creating a safe space for rest and the need for a certain degree of stability in participants’ lives to facilitate engagement with MT:

Because of my neighbour who was being threatening and harassing, I didn’t feel safe to sit in that environment… and my Mum started drinking terribly badly, so that all got so bad I just thought ‘I need to do something quickly with my life’. (MT50)

With this requirement for safety and support manifesting particularly in relation to rest, several participants indicated that including their partner in the therapy session in which rest was explained helped to meet this need.

(c)Providing guidance and reassurance

Participants recalled some discomfort with a lack of clear instruction and sufficient reassurance being given around treatment components, particularly diaries.

One thing I struggled with was having just a blank canvas in the diary… I found it quite hard to understand exactly what was needed. (MT16)

Participants indicated that providing a more detailed ‘framework’ (MT17) for diary completion and assuring participants that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing this were potential ways of minimising such challenges. In the context of therapy sessions feeling somewhat intensive and information rich, participants also suggested that providing audio-recordings and handouts, and ensuring regular input from participants during sessions, could facilitate their engagement with MT.

(d)Burden and commitment

There was a sense from participants that MT required a large commitment. Some participants had difficulties attending treatment sessions, or struggled to find time for components such as rest and diary writing. For several participants, this time commitment among work and caring responsibilities were key factors in their decision to discontinue therapy. For participants with incompatible expectations and understandings of treatment (theme 1), the requirements of MT also at times created a sense of burden.

It was pressurising me into doing it, every day you had to remember certain things… Then more and more, every week there’s a bit more added and that’s when it became too much. (MT28)

In the absence of understanding MT as a process alongside the failure of treatment components to achieve their assigned (incorrect) purpose (such as reducing symptoms), these participants appeared to consider these components as somewhat devoid of meaning and simply extra things which they ‘had to do’, creating a sense of pressure to ‘perform’ (MT19) for a therapy which was not working for them.

Theme 5: the value and impact of MT

Many participants, excluding those whose accounts fell within theme 1, described the value and impact of MT in terms of providing a preferable alternative to other therapies (constituent theme (a)), the value of acceptance (constituent theme (b)), transformation from dwelling to doing (constituent theme (c)), empowerment and liberation (constituent theme (d)) and effect on symptoms (constituent theme (e)).

(a)A preferable alternative

Participants often described MT as preferable to (mindfulness-based) CBT and counselling, typically contrasting the accepting and allowing stance of MT with the controlling and combative stance of CBT. Participants welcomed a move from ‘thinking positively’ towards ‘accepting that not everything is positive’ (MT43) and considered the naturalisation of unpleasant experiences ‘less judgemental and conflicting’ than CBT (MT17). While participants viewed MT as a ‘philosophy to take you through life’ (MT50) in which patients are ‘not seen as a bunch of symptoms’ (MT15), they described (mindfulness-based) CBT as a ‘tool-kit’ approach/‘sticking plaster’ (MT43) or ‘short-term fix’ (MT63) in comparison. There was thus a sense that MT was a more ‘holistic’ (MT43), pervasive and potentially sustainable approach, which had made fundamental and instinctive changes to their perspective.

I have done other work in the past but this seems to have struck a chord of change within, not just a ‘Right, this is a strategy’… That never, ever worked for me. It’s something fundamentally, I hope, I feel very optimistic, has changed with my acceptance of these feelings. (MT63)

(b)Relinquishing control: the value of acceptance

The impact of MT often centred on participants’ acceptance and allowance of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and a sense of relinquishing attempts to control the uncontrollable. Critical to this was how therapy had normalised unpleasant emotions, making them permissible and demonstrating that it is ‘okay to be with’ them (MT33). Often, participants extended this attitude of acceptance more broadly in terms of ‘what will be will be’ (MT33) and ‘it’s just how it is’ (MT43) with regards to all aspects of life they felt unable to control.

I don’t worry about things, not anymore… [Therapist] has taught me to let things go, there’s nothing you can do to change anything, if it’s going to happen it will happen, you’ve just got to go with it and take the rough with the smooth… realising that has helped me. (MT37)

More widely, participants noted the positive impact of the acceptance, normalisation and permissibility of difficulties on their self-image and relationships, noting decreases in shame and criticism of both self and others.

(c)Transformation: from dwelling to doing

Participants described shifts in their attention and behaviour from fixating on symptoms towards focusing outwardly on the external environment: ‘you’re doing things rather than just dwelling on them’ (MT43). Accordingly, participants often described paying less attention to (fixing) symptoms, being ‘more present’ in the moment (MT43) and ‘getting more involved’ (MT33) with others, activity, nature and life.

It’s about moving your focus away from what’s going on inside to carrying on what’s going on in the real world… my mind is completely outside of myself, I’m looking forward and I’m interested in what I’m doing and I’m taking full part in it, and to be honest I don’t even think about anxiety. (MT45)

There was thus a sense of transition from participants’ lives being dictated by their symptoms to being dictated by external factors, with action-taking now being motivated by the action itself rather than a desire to overcome symptoms.

(d)Empowerment and liberation

Running through participants’ accounts of acceptance and transition was a sense of empowerment through freedom from former restrictions, fears, judgements and struggles. Participants indicated that they were no longer ‘scared’ of their symptoms (MT15/MT50) and that relinquishing attempts to ‘fix’ them induced a sense of relief and liberation of energy.

I accept that it’s almost, um, honestly being able to stop trying to cure yourself and just, yeah, give up that struggle… It’s a feeling of – a little bit of relief. (MT45)

Participants also felt empowered to take action through learning that they can do so with symptoms and, as such, felt able to tackle avoided activities such as driving and changing jobs. This empowerment was often expressed in terms of increased self-confidence, feeling better equipped to dictate and manage situations, and feeling ‘a lot more in control’ (MT16) in terms of increased autonomy over their lives. This appeared to have manifested through a redirection of efforts and altered ownership of responsibility: through accepting what cannot be controlled (internal states) and focusing on what can be controlled (behaviour).

(e)Improvement in symptoms and mood

When questioned as to whether MT had helped them with their difficulties, participants often stated ‘a lot’, and described improvements such as stopping antidepressant medication. However, participants’ spontaneous accounts typically focused on their changed outlooks and behaviours, prioritising the adoption of MT principles, with symptom reduction considered secondary to this or described through the lens of acceptance. While many referred to (an acceptance of) some continued symptoms, they typically noted these were of reduced duration due to reductions in the vicious cycle and increased action-taking. Similarly, participants described more frequent pleasant experiences, and more thorough engagement with and enjoyment of these, given this time was no longer spent attempting to analyse and pre-empt unpleasant experiences.

My anxiety’s gone, my depression’s gone and I’m in a much better place. I had a bad little patch…but then a day later I was absolutely fine, so instead of being stuck in that cycle for weeks, it was only like a couple of days. (MT50)

Discussion

This paper presents a model of how different participants viewed and experienced MT, highlighting three key findings. First, the link between acceptability and participants’ expectations, understandings and receptivity to the MT principles was demonstrated, suggesting some participants may find MT too discordant with their treatment expectations to be acceptable. Thus, the first three themes capture different typologies whereby participants who held expectations and understandings of treatment which are incompatible with MT (theme 1), such as seeking a cure for symptoms, were contrasted with those who identify with the principles (theme 2), such as accepting the natural ebb and flow of internal states, and accurately understand the purpose of the treatment components as part of a progressive process (theme 3).

Second, the distinction between MT in principle and practice was highlighted: while the centrality of identification with MT on a conceptual level was stressed, the challenges of engaging with MT on a practical level also shaped acceptability (theme 4). These challenges centred on fear and discomfort around rest, and other practical factors which are relevant in many forms of psychological therapy56 57 such as needing safety and support from others, needing sufficient therapist guidance and reassurance, and the required commitment. Whether participants were willing to tolerate such challenges was often shaped by the degree to which they identified with the MT principles and understood the purpose of the treatment components.

Finally, MT was perceived as acceptable by many participants, who emphasised the value and impact of the approach (theme 5) in terms of the acceptance, normalisation and permissibility of difficulties; a sense of transformation from life being dictated by symptoms to being dictated by external factors; empowerment and liberation from former restrictions, fears, judgements and struggles; and decreases in symptoms as a by-product of such changes. For these participants, MT was often described as preferable to other treatments they had tried.

Strengths and limitations

This study is the first to explore the views of UK-based patients about MT. Our use of qualitative methods enabled us to develop a rich account of acceptability within a model of how MT was experienced and understood by different participants, incorporating both exploratory and explanatory insights.

Our sample size was constrained by the number of Morita Trial participants meeting our sampling criteria. Nonetheless, it was possible to explore the views of participants who, together, fulfilled all manifestations of our sampling criteria, and only additional participants who both completed and responded to treatment were not sampled for analysis. Purposively (and explicitly) selecting participants to achieve maximum variation along theoretically driven dimensions allowed us to explore the breadth of views, obtain key insights in relation to issues with acceptability and conduct in-depth (non-superficial) analysis which represents the views of all of those sampled.58 As analysis continued to the point at which no new themes were emerging and both the breadth and depth of data were explored, we consider data saturation and sampling adequacy to have been achieved.44 49

We recognise potential limitations of this study. The analysis may not have readily reflected how participants’ views changed over time; for some factors deemed important in acceptability, such as identifying with the principles, the reliance on post-treatment interviews posed some challenges: it was difficult to ascertain the extent to which such identification had been held early in treatment (as claimed by many participants) and thus shaped views on acceptability versus the extent to which it emerged from participants’ engagement in treatment. Therefore, in the future, it may be informative to capture the views and values of participants before as well as after treatment, to assess the nature of this relationship in more depth.

Furthermore, although our sample was diverse in terms of age and gender, the distribution of the education levels is higher than that found in the general UK population.59 Although the education distribution broadly reflects that of our whole pilot trial sample,29 those MT participants with whom we could not conduct an interview (n=6) had a lower distribution of education level than those in our sample. It is possible therefore that our results are not transferable to the UK population as a whole, and moreover that education level may impact on the perceived acceptability of MT: the approach may be more attractive to and/or more suitable for those of a higher education level. Therefore, in a large-scale trial, it will be important to measure education level as a potential moderator of response and acceptability in MT.

Implications and future research

Our findings indicate that MT was acceptable to, and beneficial for, many participants. In the context of our promising pilot trial data on treatment adherence and outcomes (reported elsewhere), we suggest that the views of a minority of participants who found MT less acceptable should not prevent us from proceeding to a large-scale trial of MT using the UK Morita Therapy outpatient protocol. However, our results do suggest that some minor modifications to our clinical protocol may enhance acceptability. In particular, the provision of increased therapist explanation and reassurance around diary completion may ease some of the discomfort participants described in relation to this. Other suggestions made by participants, such as providing handouts during therapy, may also be incorporated.

One key finding is the link between acceptability and participants’ identification with the MT principles in light of their expectations and understandings of treatment. This may inform further amendments to our clinical protocol in an effort to both better manage participants’ expectations and better explain the purpose of the treatment components (eg, re-terming ‘rest’, which has connotations of ‘relaxation’, as ‘being with’ may clarify its purpose). This finding is also consistent with previous research which highlights the role of patients’ expectations of and preferences for treatment in moderating treatment acceptability, engagement and response,60–63 and is an early indication of who MT may be more or less acceptable to. Our mixed methods study, reported elsewhere, extends these findings by relating them to treatment adherence and outcomes, and in a future definitive trial we seek to incorporate these potential moderators into a process evaluation.64

Many participants’ accounts specifically highlight the novelty and value of MT in comparison to other treatments, with participants appreciating the distinctive focus on allowing (as opposed to controlling) symptoms. These data support the potential of MT to offer patients a meaningfully distinct alternative to other NICE-recommended treatments for current depression, thereby facilitating genuine patient choice as enshrined in the forthcoming NICE guidelines for depression.65 While our pilot trial results29 suggest that MT may be equivalent in effectiveness to other psychological therapies, treatment effectiveness varies at the level of the individual66 67: thus, while some participants who did not consider MT to be acceptable may be better suited to one of the currently available NICE-recommended treatments for depression,9 others may find MT more beneficial. Indeed, given the number of our participants who had tried other treatments in the past, these findings provide some early and tentative insights into the possible value of MT for some patients who do not respond to NICE-recommended first-line psychological treatments. In the context of little evidence to guide the management of these patients68 and an absence of a specific and effective treatment pathway within the NICE guidelines, it makes sense to test treatments which offer patients, for whom establish treatments have failed, a qualitatively different approach towards mental health.

The views of participants about MT may be of interest to clinicians and researchers more broadly. Although many have suggested that features of MT such as rest, Fumon (inattention to symptoms) and the concept of allowing rather than controlling symptoms may require dilution for a Western population,23 69–72 we have tested a version of MT which closely aligns with the original four-phased inpatient model21 by incorporating all such features. The views of many participants who valued not only MT but these specific features suggest that MT may not require as much modification to achieve cultural accommodation in the West as many authors have previously deemed necessary, yet not empirically investigated.23 72–77

Acknowledgments

We thank the University of Exeter Mood Disorders Centre AccEPT Clinic for supporting this trial.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors DAR proposed the study; HVRS as chief investigator and study researcher designed the study with the involvement of DAR and JF; JF provided additional guidance and support in relation to the qualitative study; HVRS drafted the study protocol and materials and obtained National Health Service ethical approval and research and development governance assurance; HVRS and DAR developed the UK Morita Therapy outpatient protocol; DAR supervised the study therapists. HVRS, who had undergraduate and master’s degrees in the field of psychology as well as 7 years of experience in mental health research, was responsible for project management, data collection and analysis. HVRS managed the Morita Trial and conducted baseline assessments as part of her PhD and therefore had prior contact with all interviewees. HVRS received both in-house and external training in qualitative interviewing and analysis. JF supervised and conducted data analysis with HVRS. HVRS drafted the manuscript. All other authors contributed to editing of the final manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding The first author (HVRS) had a PhD fellowship award from the University of Exeter Medical School; DAR and JF are also funded by the University of Exeter Medical School and DAR, as a National Institute for Health Research Senior Investigator, receives additional support from the UK National Institute for Health Research South West Peninsula Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care. The AccEPT Clinic is funded by the National Health Service Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group and hosted by the University of Exeter’s Mood Disorders Centre. The Morita Trial was sponsored by the University of Exeter (contact details available on request). The sponsor and funding sources have had no role in the design of this study, nor during its execution, analyses, interpretation of data or submission of results.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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