Acute-phase cognitive therapy (CT) is an efficacious treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD), but how CT helps patients is incompletely understood. As a potential means to clarify CT mechanisms, we defined “symptom linkage density” (SLD) as a patient’s mean time-lagged correlation among nine depressive symptoms across 13 weekly assessments. We hypothesized that patients with higher SLD during CT have better outcomes (treatment response, and fewer symptoms after response), and we explored whether SLD correlated with other possible CT processes (growth in social adjustment and CT skills).
Data were drawn from two clinical trials of CT for adult outpatients with recurrent MDD (primary sample n = 475, replication sample n = 146). In both samples, patients and clinicians completed measures of depressive symptoms and social adjustment repeatedly during CT. In the primary sample, patients and cognitive therapists rated patients’ CT skills. After CT, responders were assessed for 32 (primary sample) or 24 (replication sample) additional months to measure long-term depression outcomes.
Higher SLD predicted increases in social adjustment (both samples) and CT skills (primary sample) during CT, CT response (both samples), and lower MDD severity for at least 2 years after CT response (both samples). Analyses controlled patient-level symptom means and variability to estimate SLD’s incremental predictive validity.
These novel findings from two independent samples with longitudinal follow-up require further replication and extension. SLD may reflect or facilitate generalization of CT skills, improvement in social functioning, or other processes responsible for CT’s shorter and longer term benefits.