Message Delivery for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Longitudinal Observational Study of Symptom Trajectories

J Med Internet Res. 2020 Apr 29;22(4):e15587. doi: 10.2196/15587.


Background: Individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) face symptoms that can hinder access to treatment, such as avoidance and guilt. Telemedicine offers a technological solution to increase access to mental health care and overcome barriers to treatment. Although an increasing body of literature focused on synchronous telehealth (eg, live video), no studies have examined the delivery of PTSD treatment via two-way multimedia messages (ie, texting or messaging).

Objective: The aim of this study was to conduct a longitudinal observation of treatment for PTSD delivered using two-way asynchronous messaging. We also sought to identify individual and treatment characteristics that could predict the observed outcome differences.

Methods: Outpatients diagnosed with PTSD (N=475) received interventions from licensed therapists, which were delivered via messaging once or more than once per day, 5 days a week for 12 weeks. PTSD symptoms were assessed every 3 weeks using the PTSD Checklist for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5. Trajectories of PTSD symptoms were identified using growth mixture modeling (GMM). Using logistic regression, the demographic, treatment, and messaging characteristics of patient groups that improved were compared with the characteristics of patient groups that did not improve.

Results: The GMM identified 4 trajectories of PTSD symptoms: moderate improvement (197/475, 41.4%), high symptoms (197/475, 41.4%), chronic symptoms (61/475, 12.9%), and acute improvement (20/475, 4.3%). Patients with a clinically significant reduction in PTSD symptoms (231/475, 48.6%) were more likely to communicate via video (odds ratio [OR] 1.01, 95% CI 1.01-1.05; P=.03), have a higher working alliance with their therapist (OR 1.03, 95% CI 1.01-1.05; P=.02), and be at their first treatment experience (OR 2.03, 95% CI 1.18-3.54; P=.01). Treatment adherence was associated with greater therapeutic alliance (OR 1.07, 95% CI 1.03-1.10; P<.001), education (OR 2.13, 95% CI 1.13-4.03; P=.02), and more patient-generated messages per week (OR 1.08, 95% CI 1.04-1.13; P<.001).

Conclusions: Multimedia message delivery for PTSD treatment showed symptom-reduction rates similar to traditional forms of treatment delivery, suggesting further study of messaging as a treatment medium. Most patients completed an 8-week course, reflecting the acceptability of messaging interventions. Delivering treatment via two-way messaging offers increased opportunities for widespread access to mental health care.

Keywords: PTSD; digital health; messaging; psychotherapy; telehealth; telemedicine; textmessaging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • Telemedicine
  • Young Adult