Testing Mechanisms of Change for Text Message–Delivered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Randomized Clinical Trial for Young Adult Depression

Michael J. Mason, J. Douglas Coatsworth, Nikola Zaharakis, Michael Russell, Brown Aaron, Sydney McKinstry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Current psychiatric epidemiological evidence estimates that 17% of young adults (aged 18-25 years) experienced a major depressive episode in 2020, relative to 8.4% of all adults aged ≥26 years. Young adults with a major depressive episode in the past year are the least likely to receive treatment for depression compared with other age groups. Objective: We conducted a randomized clinical trial following our initial 4-week SMS text message–delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-txt) for depression in young adults. We sought to test mechanisms of change for CBT-txt. Methods: Based on participant feedback, outcome data, and the empirical literature, we increased the treatment dosage from 4-8 weeks and tested 3 mechanisms of change with 103 young adults in the United States. Participants were from 34 states, recruited from Facebook and Instagram and presenting with at least moderate depressive symptomatology. Web-based assessments occurred at baseline prior to randomization and at 1, 2, and 3 months after enrollment. The primary outcome, the severity of depressive symptoms, was assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory II. Behavioral activation, perseverative thinking, and cognitive distortions were measured as mechanisms of change. Participants were randomized to CBT-txt or a waitlist control condition. Those assigned to the CBT-txt intervention condition received 474 fully automated SMS text messages, delivered every other day over a 64-day period and averaging 14.8 (SD 2.4) SMS text messages per treatment day. Intervention texts are delivered via TextIt, a web-based automated SMS text messaging platform. Results: Across all 3 months of the study, participants in the CBT-txt group showed significantly larger decreases in depressive symptoms than those in the control group (P<.001 at each follow-up), producing a medium-to-large effect size (Cohen d=0.76). Over half (25/47, 53%) of the treatment group moved into the “high-end functioning” category, representing no or minimal clinically significant depressive symptoms, compared with 15% (8/53) of the control condition. Mediation analysis showed that CBT-txt appeared to lead to greater increases in behavioral activation and greater decreases in cognitive distortions and perseverative thinking across the 3-month follow-up period, which were then associated with larger baseline to 3-month decreases in depression. The size of the indirect effects was substantial: 57%, 41%, and 50% of the CBT-txt effect on changes in depression were mediated by changes in behavioral activation, cognitive distortions, and perseverative thinking, respectively. Models including all 3 mediators simultaneously showed that 63% of the CBT-txt effect was mediated by the combined indirect effects. Conclusions: Results provide evidence for the efficacy of CBT-txt to reduce young adult depressive symptoms through hypothesized mechanisms. To the best of our knowledge, CBT-txt is unique in its SMS text message–delivered modality, the strong clinical evidence supporting efficacy and mechanisms of change. Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT05551702; https://clinicaltrials.gov/study/NCT05551702.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere45186
JournalJMIR mHealth and uHealth
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 JMIR Publications. All rights reserved.


  • SMS text message–delivered treatment
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • depression
  • mHealth treatment
  • mobile health treatment
  • mobile phone
  • randomized clinical trial
  • young adults

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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