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

depression

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

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

September 21, 2010|Research|

Research Spotlight: Exercise is the Rx for depression, anxiety

Exercies%20for%20anxiety%2C%20swimmer%2C%20150.jpgExercise is a magic drug for many people with depression and anxiety disorders, according to researchers who analyzed numerous studies, and it should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.

“Exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health,” says Jasper Smits, director of SMU’s Anxiety Research and Treatment Program. “The more therapists who are trained in exercise therapy, the better off patients will be.”

The traditional treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy don’t reach everyone who needs them, says Smits, an associate professor of psychology.

“Exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access, or who don’t want to because of the perceived social stigma associated with these treatments,” he says. “Exercise also can supplement traditional treatments, helping patients become more focused and engaged.”

Exercise%20for%20anxiety%2C%20weights%2C%20400.jpgSmits and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, presented their findings to researchers and mental health care providers March 6 at the Anxiety Disorder Association of America’s annual conference in Baltimore.

Their workshop was based on their therapist guide “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders,” with accompanying patient workbook (Oxford University Press, September 2009).

The guide draws on dozens of population-based studies, clinical studies and meta-analytic reviews that demonstrate the efficacy of exercise programs, including the authors’ meta-analysis of exercise interventions for mental health and study on reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise.

“Individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger,” Smits says. “Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors. For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing.”

After patients have passed a health assessment, Smits says, they should work up to the public health dose, which is 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity.

At a time when 40 percent of Americans are sedentary, he says, mental health care providers can serve as their patients’ exercise guides and motivators.

“Rather than emphasize the long-term health benefits of an exercise program – which can be difficult to sustain – we urge providers to focus with their patients on the immediate benefits,” he says. “After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy – and you’ll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise.”

Smits says health care providers who prescribe exercise also must give their patients the tools they need to succeed, such as the daily schedules, problem-solving strategies and goal-setting featured in his guide for therapists.

“Therapists can help their patients take specific, achievable steps,” he says. “This isn’t about working out five times a week for the next year. It’s about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today.”

Written by Sarah Hanan

> Read more at the SMU Research blog

April 7, 2010|Research|
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