Research Spotlight: It’s complicated: Mental illness & romantic relationships

Sun%20couple%20thmbnl.jpgFor a healthy couple in a romantic relationship, getting along can be hard enough. But what if one person has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression?

Adding severe mental illness into the mix can make it even harder to keep a relationship healthy, happy and satisfying, say psychologists Amy Pinkham and Lorelei Simpson, both assistant professors in SMU’s Department of Psychology.

A new research project by Pinkham and Simpson aims to understand how relationships function where one person has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Their study takes a close look at how couple relationships function when one partner has difficulties with the important social ability called “social cognition.”

Social cognition is the ability to understand social information and accurately read and interpret another person’s feelings, to understand their perspective, and then respond appropriately. And it is commonly lacking or deficient in people with severe mental illness, say Pinkham and Simpson. For example, an ill individual may think their partner is angry when in fact the person is unhappy.

Understanding these deficits could lead to treatments to address social cognition deficits within relationships, say Pinkham and Simpson. The researchers hope to develop programs for people with severe mental illness to help them improve the social skills critical for them to maintain a happy relationship.

“Understanding a partner’s viewpoint and emotions is key to many relationship skills,” says Simpson. “The social cognition deficits among people with severe mental illness may help explain their greater risk for relationship distress.”

People with severe mental illness tend to have more episodes of intimate partner violence and greater relationship discord, say Pinkham and Simpson. It’s possible that deficits in social cognition may play a role in these negative outcomes, they say.

The researchers are recruiting 60 couples from ethnically diverse backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 65. Over the next 12 months, they will compare social cognition deficits and relationship functioning in couples in which one partner has a severe mental illness to couples in which neither partner has severe mental illness. The Texas-based Hogg Foundation for Mental Health has awarded the psychologists a one-year, $15,000 grant to fund the study.

Pinkham and Simpson say they expect to find that impairments in social cognition do detract from a couple’s efforts at a happy relationship. They hope this initial study will improve understanding of the problems leading to relationship distress that are commonly seen in these couples.

They also expect that the study will lead to longitudinal and treatment studies that will enable them to develop recommendations for treatment and therapy that can help people with severe mental illness overcome the deficit.

“In the last five years, several treatment programs have been developed that show considerable promise for improving social cognitive abilities in individuals with a severe mental illness. If we find that social cognition does contribute to relationship satisfaction, we may be able to extend these same treatments to couples therapy,” says Pinkham.

Written by Margaret Allen

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