BACKGROUND: Intensive longitudinal (IL) designs provide the potential to study symptoms as they evolve in real-time within individuals. This has promising clinical implications, potentially allowing conclusions at the level of specific individuals. The current study aimed to establish the feasibility of IL designs, as indicated by self-rated burden and attrition, in the context of psychiatry. Additionally, we evaluated three core assumptions about the instruments (diary items) used in IL designs. These assumptions are: diary items (1) reflect experiences that change over time within individuals (indicated by item variability), (2) are interpreted consistently over time, and (3) correspond to retrospective assessments of psychopathology.
METHODS: TRAILS TRANS-ID is an add-on IL study in the clinical cohort of the TRAILS study. Daily diaries on psychopathological symptoms for six consecutive months were completed by 134 at risk young adults (age 22.6 ± 0.6 years). At baseline, immediately after the diary period, and one year after the diary period, participants completed a diagnostic interview.
RESULTS: Excellent compliance (88.5% of the diaries completed), low participant burden (M = 3.21; SD = 1.42; range 1-10), and low attrition (8.2%) supported the feasibility of six-month IL designs. Diary items differed in their variability over time. Evaluation of the consistency of diary item interpretations showed that within-individual variability in scores could not be attributed to changing interpretations over time. Further, daily symptom reports reasonably correlated with retrospective assessments (over a six month period) of psychopathology obtained with the diagnostic interview, suggesting that both measures might complement each other.
CONCLUSION: The current study is the first to show that IL designs over extensive periods (i.e., multiple months) in psychiatry are feasible, and meet three core assumptions to study change in psychopathology. This might allow for addressing novel and promising hypotheses in our field, and might substantially alter how we treat and study mental ill-health.