Study to Explore Social Connections Of Black, Latinx People with SMIs

Dr. Rohina Pahwa's headshot next to an illustration of a mock ego centric social network drawn in a social network software called NetDraw. It is a diagram showing 14 nodes, labeled with people’s names, connected by lines, which represent complex relationships. The person who created the illustration is represented by a red node, which is connected to all the other nodes in the diagram. Some of the other nodes, three of which are blue and ten of which are green, are connected to each other as well as to the red node.

Shown next to Dr. Rohina Pahwa's headshot is an illustration of a mock ego centric social network, similar to what study participants used to map their relationships.

Team co-led by Dr. Rohini Pahwa received a $3.1M NIH grant to reveal factors that predict social networks and mental health service use.

New York, NY – Social connections with family, friends, colleagues, and others are crucial to people’s health and life expectancy. These linkages are especially important for individuals with serious mental illnesses (SMIs), such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. However Black and Latinx individuals with SMIs are more likely to have limited social networks and experience greater difficulty accessing and staying engaged in mental health services.

To gain insight into the factors that influence Black and Latinx people with SMIs’ social networks and use of mental health services, the National Institute of Mental Health has awarded NYU Silver School of Social Work Associate Professor and PhD Program Director Rohini Pahwa and Thomas Jefferson University Assistant Professor Erin Kelly a five-year, $3.1 million grant. 

“It is critical to understand how risk and protective factors affect trajectories of social network size, composition, function, and experiences because these ultimately influence mental health services outcomes for individuals with SMIs,” said Dr. Pahwa.

The 5-year study, which began on April 1, 2024, will comprehensively investigate the social networks of 600 Black and Latinx individuals with SMIs. It will assess how their social networks change over an 18-month period due to clinical factors like whether they pick up social cues, believe in their capacity to achieve social connection goals, and have a desire to connect with others. It will also look at non-clinical factors, such as racism and mental health stigma; and systemic factors like incarceration and unstable housing. 

Using a method the researchers developed, participants will create maps of their social networks at the start of the study, after 9 months and after 18-months. The researchers will measure participants’ social networks at each time point and test if their relationships are affected by race/ethnicity over that period. The study will also include in-depth interviews with 50 Black and Latinx individuals with SMIs to further explain how the various factors impact participants’ social networks. 

“Findings from this study will be used to develop culturally-nuanced interventions for Black and Latinx individuals with serious mental illnesses, whose experiences with racism, stigma, and discrimination make them especially vulnerable to social network deterioration and consequent poor outcomes for their mental and physical health,” said Dr. Pahwa. 

The project will be done in collaboration with a practice-based research network of four mental health agencies in Los Angeles. NYU Silver Professor Deborah Padgett, is a co-Investigator and Professor Emeritus James Jaccard is a consultant on the project, in addition to Drs. John Brekke of the University of Southern California, Melissa Smith of the University of Maryland, Stacey Barrenger of Neomed, and Enrico Castillo of UCLA.