CELEBRATE! Profile: Emma Muscari

A psychology major researches how romantic partners can influence whether a person seeks help for mental health concerns. 

CELEBRATE! Week offers an annual opportunity to highlight the academic and artistic achievements of Elon students and faculty. Each day this week, we are putting the spotlight on a student scholar's research — what they are seeking to find out, and who they became interested in their project.

Emma Muscari, a psychology major researching how romantic partners influence mental health help-seeking
Name: Emma Muscari

Area of study: Couples, Help-seeking barriers and facilitators

Major: Psychology

Minors: Human Service Studies, Italian Studies

Faculty mentor: CJ Fleming, assistant professor of psychology

Title of research: Help-Seeking for Mental Health Concerns: The Role of Partner Influence


Romantic partners are thought to have an influence on mental health help-seeking, but limited research exists on this process. The present study sought to better understand help-seeking behavior for mental health concerns by examining how various conversational tactics (autonomy support, accommodation, and criticism) and other variables related to help seeking can be used to facilitate help seeking. The sample consisted of 282 adults who were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and reported being diagnosed with a mental health condition and currently in a romantic relationship. All survey participants were asked about their mental health history, romantic relationships, and help-seeking perceptions.

Additionally, each participant was randomly assigned to receive one of the three vignettes that contained the autonomy supportive, accommodating, or critical partner messages, which were all characterized by high/low levels of challenge and high/low levels of support. Results suggested that receiving autonomy supportive or accommodating communication may increase confidence in treatment. Analyses of measures of help-seeking indicated that greater levels of partner accommodation, motivation, finances, perceived treatment effectiveness, less disapproval from one’s social network, and lower perceived control over the mental health condition serve as predictors of current treatment engagement. Given that numerous barriers prevent those with mental health concerns from accessing the care they need, it is important to distinguish and promote the facilitator role of partners in mental health help-seeking.

In other words:

We examined how romantic partners can influence mental health help-seeking. Specifically, we looked at three communication styles that people could use to facilitate certain help-seeking beliefs and behaviors in their significant others, and at other factors related to initial help-seeking experiences. One of our main findings was that the autonomy supportive and accommodating communication styles affected people’s confidence in treatment. Our study also highlighted additional barriers to and facilitators of help-seeking such as social support, motivation, finances, etc.

Explanation of study:

Due to the numerous barriers that prevent people with mental health concerns from accessing the care they need, it is pronouncedly important that additional facilitators work to counteract the existing barriers. Autonomy support, accommodation and criticism are various methods of addressing mental health concerns and promoting help seeking that have the ability to either persuade or discourage individuals to take action. However, the exact relationship between these partner responses and mental health outcomes is less certain. Understanding the perceived helpfulness of these responses serves as an important step in realizing the influence of partners on mental health. Therefore, the goal of this study was to discover ways in which partners can use certain conversational tactics to better facilitate the help-seeking of their loved ones who have mental health concerns.

What made this research interesting to you? How did you get started?

I was initially interested in the lack of help-seeking among the majority of people with mental health conditions, as well as the potential ways of encouraging treatment utilization. With Dr. Fleming’s clinical and couples background, we narrowed our search to the literature on social support and health behavior change. We then recognized the limited research on partners and mental health behavior change (as opposed to partners and physical health behavior change—i.e., how people can help their partners to stop smoking or lose weight). Studying the role of romantic partners was exciting and practical since mental health concerns not only impact individuals but can also impact relational contexts.  

How has undergraduate research contributed to your experience at Elon?

Undergraduate research was such an integral part of my time at Elon. As a College Fellow, I was expected to complete an original project in conjunction with my mentor. However, I was able to work on several additional projects with Dr. Fleming that allowed me to further develop my skills as a social scientist. These experiences really gave me a leg-up in graduate school interviews as well as the confidence to pursue a career in clinical psychology. I also made a lot of research-oriented friends along the way!