Researcher Spotlight BHIDC's Co-Director Dr. Feea Leifker
The Office of the Vice President for Research spotlights University of Utah researchers who look for new and innovative ways to bring solutions to the issues of today and tomorrow. Dr. Feea Leifker, research assistant professor with the Department of Psychology focuses her research on the bidirectional association between psychopathology (specifically posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide) and intimate relationship functioning and dysfunction.
“Some of that research has been more basic, like looking at some of the relationship processes that are disrupted as a result of some of these disorders,” she said. Leifker’s research has involved bringing couples into the lab and looking at how they communicate with one another and how PTSD affects that.
“I recently submitted a meta-analysis with a group of colleagues showing that actually interpersonal functioning does improve as a result of individual PTSD treatment,” she said, though to a limited extent. “Treatments not even focused on the relationship, just a trauma focused treatment. We're actually seeing some gains in relationship functioning, which is really, really cool and promising. Now we can work towards understanding how that functions as well within new couple-based treatments for PTSD.”
Leifker stated that her more recent research has been focused on developing and disseminating couple-based treatments for mental health disorders.
What got Leifker interested in studying the effects of PSTD in relationships?
Leifker said that as an undergraduate student, she was really interested in the study of intimate partner violence, and viewed PTSD as a consequence of that in that people who are abused often develop PTSD.
“After I got my master's degree in public health, I ended up doing research on a study that was examining PTSD treatment for Iraq Veterans and I started to realize that sometimes aggression can be a consequence of having a disorder and that simultaneously having social support can be protective against developing a disorder,” she said. “And so understanding this bidirectional relationship was really fascinating to me,” and lead Leifker to pursue a degree in clinical psychology.
Working with the Behavioral Health Innovation and Dissemination Center
In addition to specific work in the area of PTSD and relationships, one of the things that has Dr. Leifker excited about research at the University of Utah is the work being done at the Behavioral Health Innovation and Dissemination Center (BHIDC), which she co-directs.
“We're training graduate students and psychiatry residents in the provision of psychotherapy, and the clinic is hoping to provide some infrastructure for interdisciplinary research across the U for people wanting to do clinical trial or pilot type research,” she said.
The Behavioral Health Innovation and Dissemination Center works with all of the degree granting programs at the U that require their students to learn psychotherapy, Leifker added.
“The clinic is really focused on providing low-cost evidence-based treatment for the predominant outpatient disorders that we run into here in Utah, so depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship, distress, that kind of stuff,” she said. “And getting students high quality training treating these disorders.”
Leifker says there's a mental health crisis right now in Utah, and she and the people at her clinic are dedicated to helping improve the existing treatments or get access to treatment. “And that's kind of the goal of the clinic,” she said. “We really want to help people reduce the barriers to treatment.”
What research has taught Dr. Leifker about herself
Research has helped Leifker have an appreciation for seeing the world through many different eyes.
“Being able to understand how multifaceted the world is and how many different ways and combinations of things factor into why people are the way they are. Research, in some way, has shaped my worldview with that.”
For Leifker, she hopes that the future of research at the U will involve more opportunities for collaboration across disciplines that one wouldn't necessarily expect to see, like, for example, psychology collaborating with political science.
When it comes to what advice she would give an up and coming researcher, Leifker said it’s important to be passionate about what you’re researching.
“It can be hard to be in research. You apply for grants and they don't get funded and you pick yourself back up and you try again,” she said. “And so if you're passionate about it and that's something you really want to be doing, I think that really makes a research career. I'm very happy in my research career and I think that's because I'm both able to help people at the same time as doing something [research] I'm really passionate about.”