Background. Expressed emotion (EE) is a measure of the family environment that is a well replicated psychosocial predictor of psychiatric relapse. Theoretical models of EE place heavy emphasis on the notion of control. We explored the extent to which high and low EE relatives made both attributions of control about patients and engaged in controlling behaviours.
Methods. Trained raters who were blind to information about EE coded interviews with 35 relatives of patients with schizophrenia and 42 relatives of patients with unipolar depression. Relatives were rated on two reliable scales that assessed relatives' tendencies to make illness controllability attributions and relatives' efforts to exert direct behavioural control over patients.
Results. In both the schizophrenia and depressed groups, high-EE relatives attributed more control to their ill family members than did low EE relatives. They also behaved in a more controlling manner. Examination of patients' clinical outcomes during a 9-month follow-up period revealed that high levels of behavioural control on the part of relatives significantly predicted relapse in patients with schizophrenia but not in patients with depression.
Conclusions. These findings support the attribution-based model of EE. They further suggest that controlling behaviours on the part of relatives may mediate the EE-relapse link in schizophrenia. Such behaviours may be important targets for modification in family-based interventions for schizophrenia.