CBT for Schizophrenia (CBT-P):
An Introduction


What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-P) for Schizophrenia?

CBT for Schizophrenia is an evidence-based treatment which directly addresses key symptoms of schizophrenia including delusions, hallucinations and negative symptoms (lack of motivation, lack of interest, lack of pleasure). It seeks to develop a strong therapeutic alliance based on understanding the client’s perspective and experience; uses gentle questioning techniques to test out strongly held beliefs (delusions), cope with voices (auditory hallucinations,); and, alleviates distress and psychological pain (Kingdon & Turkington, 2005). Contrary to common clinical wisdom, direct discussion of delusions and hallucinations does not lead to worsening of symptoms. Often, clients feel relieved that someone is listening and trying to make sense of their distressing and confusing experiences. This approach can greatly assist in engaging clients in treatment.

Download the NAMI Marin Presentation for more on this topic.


What is the evidence that CBT is effective for people with Schizophrenia?

More than sixteen randomized controlled studies using CBT for Schizophrenia have been published that demonstrate positive outcomes in treating both the positive and negative symptoms of the disorder (Kingdon & Turkington, 2005). Follow-up on a clinical trial by Sensky et al. (2000) showed continuing improvements in symptoms 5 years after therapy was completed.


What types of clients can benefit from this type of therapy?

This type of therapy can be used with clients who have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and delusional disorders. It is mainly useful for clients who are distressed by their symptoms. It can be effective even if the client does not appear to have insight into his/her illness, as long as the client can be engaged in a helping relationship.


First develop the therapeutic alliance:
Instill hope and try to help the person understand their experience. The main goal is to instill hope by developing a respectful, compassionate and honest relationship with the person. It is best to start by trying to understand the person’s experience even if it seems frightening, bizarre or confusing.  Check out the patient’s level of understanding frequently using open-ended questions. Do not make assumptions about what the person thinks or believes.   Give simple explanations of what you want to do or learn and why.  Provide a rationale- allow the patient to know why you are doing what you are doing. Use a clear and understandable session structure.  Be collaborative and try to establish common goals. For example, “help” might be more specifically helping the person deal with their distress over hearing voices.  (Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 45)

Psychoeducation and Normalization: 
Introducing the stress-vulnerability model can be a very useful starting point. While recogizing the biological aspects of the illness (vulnerability), this model underlines the value of helping the client discover coping strategies to help reduce stress. Reassure the client that, from their perspective, there may be good reasons for thinking and feeling the way they do.

  • “Given what you’ve told me, I can understand why you might have these thoughts. Many people would!”
  • “The key to the client’s being able to understand the distressing and confusing experiences that occur in schizophrenia is psychoeducation based on the case formulation” (Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 83).
  • “How long do you think others have been talking about you?”
  • “Do you think think this happens all the time?"
  • “Education that normalizes effectively can be highly valued” (Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 85). This means avoiding the use of jargon and technical terms that can be confusing to a client.
  • “Normalization is the process by which thoughts, behaviors, moods, and experiences are compared and understood in terms of similar thoughts, behaviors, moods, and experiences attributed to other individuals who are not diagnosed as ill” (Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 87).

Take time to show the client the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors as outlined below.

It should be noted that Kingdon and Turkington (2005) recognize the risks of normalizing are minimization of the client’s problems and not dealing with actual consequences. It is not useful to avoid or minimize significant problems that may have a very negative impact on the client. It is best to take a direct, matter-of-fact approach.

Use of Guided Discovery Techniques:

Typically, guided discovery involves gentle questioning about problems designed to help the client uncover relevant patterns in thoughts feelings and behavior that might contribute to ongoing problems or make existing problems worse.
Client: “I keep thinking about the stalker.”
Therapist: “When did these thoughts first start to bother you?”
Client: “When I began working at that first job I told you about. It was awful- people hated me.”
Therapist: “So when you first started work in the new office, that was when you began to worry that someone was watching you”
Client: “Yes.”
Therapist: “It must have been a very uncomfortable time for you. Do you get nervous around people a lot?”


Using the ‘ABC’ Model to find connections between:

(A) Activating Events

(B) Beliefs

(C) Consequences


Often clients feel confused, frightened and overwhelmed by their disturbing symptoms (voices, frightening beliefs, etc). Therapy can help the client develop an understandable narrative (“what this all means”) about the problems that they are experiencing, their internal experiences and their responses. Explaining this all in an understandable way can be very reassuring and lead to useful solutions and possibly new and more effective coping strategies.

When did start thinking that the people might be talking about you or bugging your phone?”  What was happening when the client first became upset or distressed?  What were they thinking?  What were they feeling?

Did you notice that after you heard those voices you got scared and went up to your room right away?  What did they do?  What was the outcome?

What happened after that? Did you feel better or worse?  If the person gets distressed, it’s often a good idea to talk about something else for the rest of the session. Keep discomfort and anxiety low!

Intervening with delusions

The goal here is to generate alternative explanations for delusions and further explore how they developed without being directly challenging. Some possible questions you might use:

  • “Are there any other possible explanations for what happened?”
  • “What about this as a possibility…?”
  • “Do you think just possibly…?”
  • Are you 100% certain that this is true?”

(Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 105)

First work on establishing any evidence for the delusion with the client. This won’t worsen the delusion or become part of it. This will likely strengthen the bond between therapist and client.
Discussing and gently debating delusions:

  • Establish engagement- this is where the client is interested in and attentive to the conversation with the therapist.
  • Trace the origins of the delusion.
  • Build a picture of the prodromal period (just before the person became ill).
  • Identify significant life events and circumstances.
  • Identify relevant perceptions and thoughts.
  • Review negative thoughts and dysfunctional (maladaptive) assumptions, especially ‘taking things personally’ and ‘getting things out of context’ or ‘jumping to conclusions’.  (Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 103)
Intervening with Auditory Hallucinations (Voices)

Auditory hallucinations or voices are viewed as automatic thoughts that are misperceived by the client as originating from the outside. For some, externalizing distressing thoughts may help them cope with severe distress. Clients may benefit from several basic cognitive behavioral strategies including reattribution, debating the content of the hallucination (evidence for and against what the voice is saying), understanding how the hallucination might reflect some underlying beliefs, and developing coping strategies.

Why do you think others can’t hear the voices?”  Re-attribution (changing the client’s assumptions and beliefs about the voices being ‘out there’). The aim is to allow client to see that the voices may be his/her own thoughts.

- Discuss the client’s specific experience with voices
- Is it only the client who can hear the voices?
- Discover beliefs about the origin of the voices
- Look for possible alternative explanations and discuss with client
- Create more helpful alternative explanations.

Have client begin to monitor experiences; keep a 'Voices Diary' to record triggers and fluctuations in the voice-hearing experience.

Work on helping the client coping strategies. (“What has worked in the past with the voices?”)

Reduce safety behaviors (coping strategies that make the symptoms worse) if they are maintaining symptoms. Safety behaviors are problematic ways of responding or efforts the client makes to reduce distress or anxiety that actually reinforce the problem. For example, think of the socially anxious person who attends a party but immediately exits when they start to feel nervous. This tends to increase their anxiety and make them more likely to escape the next time.

Help the client use cognitive behavioral strategies that apply to handling automatic thoughts such a rational responding, challenging, and examining the evidence.

Help the client understand how the voices might reflect problematic beliefs.
(Kingdon and Turkington, 2005, p. 120)

Handy tips:
When questioning delusions, do so in a gentle manner. It helps in maintaining the trust of the client.

Possible Pitfalls
Clients who are not significantly distressed by their symptoms may not yet have the motivation to benefit from this type of therapy.

Key References

Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guillford Press.

Kingdon, D., & Turkington, D. (2006). Cognitive-Behavioral Thearpy of Schizophrenia.  New York: Guillford Press.

Kingdon, D., Turkington, D., & Weiden, P. (2006). Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Schizophrenia. American Journal of Psychiatry. 163 (3), 365-373.

(c) Robert Reiser, PhD and Andrea Feit, All Rights Reserved 2013