Last updated on February 2018

Process and Outcomes in CBT for Anxious and Depressed Youth

Brief description of study

The current study will evaluate the predictors, mediators, outcomes, and critical therapy processes associated with manual-based psychological therapies for 400 youth (ages 7-16 years) with anxiety and/or depression seeking services within a semi-natural clinic setting. Essentially, this study seeks to determine "what works" about psychological therapy for youth.

Detailed Study Description

The current study will evaluate the efficacy of manual-based psychological therapies administered with youth with anxiety and mood problems. It will also assess the role of several mediators (e.g., coping skills, negative self-statements, parenting practices) hypothesized to maintain youth anxiety and depression. Youth (ages 7 - 16) diagnosed with a principal Anxiety or Depressive Disorder will be recruited to receive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Anxiety (e.g., Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia) and depressive disorders (e.g., Major Depression Disorder, Dysthymia Disorder) are among the most common emotional disorder affecting America's youth, with 12-20% of youth meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder and 2-5% meeting criteria for depression at any one point in time. Both forms of disorders are associated with significant distress and functional impairment in school, peer, and family domains. Left untreated, early affliction with these disorders leaves individuals at risk for adult anxiety disorders, chronic depression, substance abuse, and long-term functional impairment. Identifying efficacious treatments and their most effective, "active ingredients" is a top health research priority. In addition, knowledge about how our psychotherapies work lags behind research documenting simple treatment effects. Knowing the therapy techniques that have the best outcomes as well as knowing how those interventions produce gains will provide valuable information for improving our already effective therapies.

Two manual-based psychological treatments that have received empirical support in clinical trial outcome studies are cognitive-behavioral treatment for anxious children (Kendall's Coping Cat) and cognitive-behavioral treatment for depressed children (Weisz's PASCET). Both treatments (a) use a manual and (b) have been supported in clinical trial outcome studies where youth receiving the manualized treatment interventions improve more than the control groups. The Kendall treatment program has produced some of the strongest treatment effects yet seen in the empirical literature for children and adolescents.

Despite our increasing knowledge of treatments that work, there has been insufficient analysis of psychological mediators in youth psychotherapy. Research on psychological mediators, or "mechanisms of action," provide information about how psychotherapy works. Randomized clinical trials document that CBT produces clinical outcomes, such as decreased symptoms and impairment following treatment. Fewer studies have assessed the degree to which coping skills, emotion management, or cognitive restructuring mediate these clinical gains. This type of mediator analysis is essential to test the theory underlying our treatments and helps inform our models of pathology. For example, if increased primary (active) coping skills precede a reduction in depressive symptoms, we might infer that poor coping skills are a maintaining factor of depression and that successful therapy works by increasing a youth's use of such skills.

In the current study, we will invite youth to participate in a CBT intervention with demonstrated efficacy and will conduct a thorough assessment of potential therapy process and mediator variables that impact treatment outcomes. Both primary (active problem solving) and secondary (attempts to adjust to situations that can not be changed) coping skills have been linked to a number of psychological distress states in youth and may have specific links to maintaining depression in youth. In anxious youth, the ratio of negative to positive self-talk has been shown to mediate gains in CBT. The role of parenting practices has also been highlighted as an important maintaining factor in anxiety (e.g., modeled anxious behavior, parent intrusiveness). Self-efficacy, a cognitive appraisal of one's ability to manage challenges, has also been related to distress in youth. Affective components, such as positive affect, negative affect, and physiological hyperarousal have received increased attention because of they reflect basic emotional processes that underlie and distinguish anxiety and depressive disorders. Finally, less research has identified cognitive functioning related to anxiety and depression, but experts encourage the assessment of multidimensional cognitive factors in the expression of psychological distress to enhance our ability to factor in normative developmental processes. Given this, the current study will assess youth primary and secondary coping skills, youth automatic thoughts and self-statements, parenting practices, affective processes and cognitive functioning as treatment outcomes and potential mediators of symptom change in CBT.

There have also only been minimal attempts to explore the therapist and client factors that impact within-session therapy processes that could improve the delivery of our empirically-supported treatments. Process factors like client engagement and therapeutic alliance may deserve particular attention in youth-based therapies because youth rarely refer themselves for treatment, often do not recognize or acknowledge the existence of problems, and frequently are at odds with their parents about the goals of therapy. Recent empirical data suggests that youth demonstrating greater engagement or stronger therapeutic alliance may experience better treatment outcomes. Therapist responsiveness to child needs and flexibility in implementing manual-based therapies might also have significant, if indirect, effects on successful treatment. A greater understanding of therapist, child, and interpersonal factors that improve the delivery of therapy could lead to concrete recommendations in training novice clinicians or in developing improved versions of current therapy manuals.

Because treatment will occur within a semi-natural clinic setting, a multiple baseline, single-case design will be used. Employing a single-case design in this context will permit continuous assessment throughout baseline and treatment phases. This design will provide data for the course and sequence of symptom and mediator change. We will also be able to document the sequence of symptom change as it relates to the introduction of specific treatment interventions. The combined information can provide valuable information for how these treatments work and which interventions produce what specific client change.


The current study will attempt to address the following aims:

Aim 1. Determine whether CBT for anxiety and depression are effective in a natural clinic setting where cases exhibit greater range of symptom severity, multiple clinical problems, and greater socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Effectiveness will be assessed in diagnostic, symptom, and adaptive functioning domains, including executive cognitive functioning.

Aim 2. Determine if youth coping skills, behavioral activation, automatic thoughts, affective process, self-efficacy or parenting practices mediate the relationship between CBT interventions and clinical outcomes.

Aim 3. Determine if youth or therapist within-session processes (e.g., child involvement, therapeutic alliance, therapist adherence to treatment protocol) moderates treatment success.

Aim 4. Determine the pattern of symptom change associated with CBT for youth (e.g., gradual symptom decline, presence of sudden gains).

Aim 5. Note patterns of additional youth mental health services and auxiliary services that families seek beyond treatment received at the Youth Anxiety and Depression Clinic.

Clinical Study Identifier: NCT03100279

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