Attachment as a framework to facilitate empowerment for people with severe mental illness

Cathelijn D. Tjaden*, Cornelis L. Mulder, Philippe A. E. G. Delespaul, Arnoud R. Arntz, Hans Kroon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Objectives Recovery and empowerment have evolved into key objectives in the treatment and care of people with severe mental illness (SMI), and interest has grown in the role of social relationships in recovery. This study is the first to explore whether attachment styles are related to levels of empowerment, and secondly, whether attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance are associated with lower empowerment levels, independently of quality and frequency of social contact.

Design We used a cross-sectional design.

Methods In a sample of 157 participants with SMI in outpatient care, associations between attachment (Revised Adult Attachment Scale), self-reported social functioning, and empowerment (Netherlands Empowerment List) were assessed.

Results Attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance were both associated with lower levels of empowerment. A stepwise multiple regression analysis showed that the prediction of empowerment was significantly improved by adding attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance to quality and frequency of social contact. Attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, and quality of social contact were significant predictors; frequency of social contact was not.

Conclusions Although our design does not allow causal conclusions, our results highlight the importance of interpersonal processes and behaviours as routes to improving empowerment for people with SMI. A promising approach might thus consist of securing attachment bonds with significant others so that the self and the other are perceived as reliable resources. Our findings also feature the importance of reciprocity and equality in social relationships. Taken together, our study emphasizes the value of social, contextualized interventions in recovery work for people with SMI.

Practitioner points

Working towards attachment safety in interpersonal relations may be important in recovery-oriented treatment and care for people with severe mental illness (SMI).

Helping people with SMI to recognize and change how they tend to relate themselves to others may promote engagement and effectiveness of recovery-oriented treatment and care.

Reciprocity and equality in social relationships as vital complements to the more one-sided nature of 'standing alongside' and offering support may be important requisites for empowerment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)407-425
Number of pages19
JournalPsychology and Psychotherapy-theory Research and Practice
Issue number3
Early online date30 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • attachment
  • empowerment
  • interpersonal relationships
  • recovery
  • severe mental illness


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