Therapeutic communities enter the world of evidence-based practice

Therapeutic communities enter the world of evidence-based practice


This editorial provides the modern-day context for a long-established psychiatric treatment, democratic therapeutic communities. As this treatment is now such a small field in psychiatry, readers may not have enough background to be able to place the research in a suitable context. This includes the previous gap in experimental research, the difference between the modern model and the one used in the 20th century and the general field of personality disorder evidence.

© The Royal College of Psychiatrists 2017

Modern-day therapeutic communities

For psychiatrists who remember democratic therapeutic communities in their heyday, they were based on Rapoport’s four themes (democratisation, permissiveness, reality confrontation and communalism) which he identified at Henderson Hospital in the late 1950s. Although the service in Pearce et al’s study is based on some of these fundamental principles, they are overlaid with several decades of development and modification.

Newer therapeutic communities now bear few superficial resemblances to these residential services, which were formed in the heat of the social psychiatry revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. No wholly group-based residential therapeutic communities now remain in the National Health Service (NHS), and all of those that still function are day units, as in this study. The laissez-faire attitude of ‘leave it to the group’ rarely prevails, there is a high level of structure and order, and there is very little opaque psychoanalytic interpretation delivered by remote therapists.

Modern therapeutic communities have a strong emphasis on empowerment, openness and ‘ordinariness’, which soon dispel any notions of therapeutic mysteriousness and charismatic leadership. They are tightly managed services with clear admission, review, progression and discharge protocols.

In 2002, one of the first quality networks of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Centre for Quality Improvement (CCQI) was the ‘Community of Communities’. It helped democratic therapeutic communities to agree the nature of best practice and to consistently deliver it.8 Part of this process involved the distillation of ten core values that underlie the measurable standards.

These would be entirely familiar to early therapeutic community pioneers: a culture of belongingness, enquiry and empowerment; democratic processes whereby no decisions can be made without due discussion and understanding; and the fundamental importance of establishing and maintaining healthy relationships (which are not always comfortable and are seldom without conflict). This work has also led to the ‘Enabling Environments’ award at the Royal College, and the development of ‘psychologically informed planned environments’ (PIPEs) in criminal justice settings, and ‘psychologically informed environments’ (PIEs) in the homelessness sector.


Their role in treatment for personality disorder

The publication of outcome studies for personality disorder treatment have had something of the quality of a ‘horse race’ or ‘beauty contest’ in the past decade. New treatments have been constituted from various old psychological theories, which have been branded and packaged, then manualised and researched with much energy and competitiveness.

In this way, they have been suitable for ‘selling’ to mental health commissioners as simple value-free ‘commodities’ or ‘products’. In a way, Pearce et al’s study indicates that therapeutic communities have now entered this race. However, it is worth proposing that their study is not of a simple ‘brand’ of treatment, but of a therapeutic philosophy with a long and distinguished heritage, which has now been adapted to fit into the wider ‘whole system’ of a 21st-century mental health service.

Therapeutic communities offer a democratic way of conducting therapeutic business, demand specific attention to the coherent and coordinated use of the different therapeutic approaches, and deliberately provide an overall therapeutic environment.11 These do not often happen in other therapies.

Therapeutic communities also specialise in being able to treat those who have a particularly severe presentation of personality
disorder, such as in prisons. This severity can be measured by diagnostic criteria, comorbidity, risk, complexity or unmanage- ability. The therapeutic environment, including techniques such as peer mentoring and deliberate informality, facilitates engagement of people who would otherwise be ‘untreatable’.

Also, by managing risk primarily through continuing, empathic and intense therapeutic relationships, therapeutic communities can manage levels of risk that would be unacceptable in other services. This study demonstrates that democratic therapeutic communities have now started to accumulate the evidence to earn a place in the therapeutic pantheon for moderate and severe personality disorder.



Pearce S, Scott L, Attwood G, Saunders K, Dean M, De Ridder R, et al. Democratic therapeutic community treatment for personality disorder: randomised controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry 2017; 210: 149–56.

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Rapoport R. Community as Doctor. Tavistock, 1960. 

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Pearce S, Haigh R. Mini therapeutic communities: a new development in the  United Kingdom. Ther Communities 2008; 29: 111–24. 

Pearce S, Haigh R. A Handbook of Democratic Therapeutic Community  Theory and Practice. JKP, 2017. 

Haigh R, Tucker S. Democratic development of standards: the Community of Communities – a quality network of therapeutic communities. Psychiatr Q 2004; 75: 263–77. 

Haigh R, Harrison T, Johnson R, Paget S, Williams S. Psychologically informed environments and the ‘‘Enabling Environments’’ initiative. Hous Care Support 2012; 15: 34–42. 

Haigh R. Industrialisation of therapy and the threat to our ethical integrity. Personal Ment Health 2014; 8: 251–3. 

Haigh R. The quintessence of a therapeutic environment. Ther Communities  2013; 34: 6–15. 

Department of Health. Recognising Complexity: Commissioning Guidance for  Personality Disorder Services. Department of Health, 2009. 

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