Andrea Wittenborn, assistant professor, human development, is heading a research team conducting the Strengthening Bonds Couples Therapy Study to treat depression and marital problems (dyadic distress) in married/committed couple relationships.

The clinical trial began last summer and is funded by the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Dean's Faculty Fellowship.

According to Wittenborn, current treatment of depression has limitations and the evidence for the widespread need for depression treatment is compelling. Depression is projected to be the world's second leading cause of disability by 2020 and has a substantial social economic burden of more than $83 billion in the United States per year. Historically, she said, depression has been treated as an individual problem, but basic research continues to reveal that depression can be caused by marital problems and those who have been treated often relapse as a result of marital difficulties.

"This basic research informed our clinical research," said Wittenborn. "The Strengthening Bonds Couples Therapy Study assesses interested participants to determine that they are experiencing co-occurring depression for at least one partner and relationship distress for both partners. Couples who qualify are then treated for these co-occurring difficulties."

The study tests the effectiveness of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for this population. EFT is one of the most empirically supported approaches for couples’ therapy. Preliminary evidence shows that EFT can treat the underlying negative interactional cycles that perpetuate both depression and marital distress.

Wittenborn's research team includes clinical supervisor, Ting Liu, assistant professor, Kean University, Union, N.J., and Certified EFT Trainer and Supervisor, several therapists in the Washington, D.C.-metro area, and six graduate students in the three-year Marriage and Family Therapy master's degree program in the human development department in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at the National Capital Region.

They are: first year master’s student Bonnie Culpepper of Roanoke, Va., second year master’s student Deborah Geslison of American Fork, Utah, third year master’s student Lauren Russo of New Britain, Conn., third year master’s student Maureen Smith of Charlotte, N.C., second year master’s student Kristin Wade of Cary, N.C., and first year master’s student Ashley Wise of Springfield, Va.

Russo is writing her thesis using data from the clinical trial, conducting a case study on therapeutic alliance.

Couples do not have to be married to be eligible for the study. However, they must be committed to each other and to solving their problems and there can be no substance abuse, domestic violence, or extra relationship issues. If accepted to participate in the clinical trials, couples receive a discount on therapy. They are assessed at intake, mid-treatment, termination, and also participate in two follow up sessions. All sessions take place in licensed therapists' offices in the Washington, D.C.-metro area and data collection occurs at the Center for Family Services, at Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church.

"Our first couple to complete therapy reports experiencing no depressive symptoms and a striking improvement in the quality of their relationship," Wittenborn said. Results from this first couple to complete treatment, entitled "EFT for Depression and Dyadic Distress: A Case Study," have been submitted for review to the annual conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. If accepted, Wittenborn and her research team will make the presentation in Atlanta in September 2010.

While the current study is scheduled to end in June 2010, Wittenborn has received a grant from the Fahs-Beck Fund for Research and Experimentation that will fund the clinical trial for an additional two years.