A Copyright Harvard Health Publications.
The Family-to-Family program helps people cope better with a loved one’s mental illness.
Mental health clinicians undergo rigorous training in their fields before treating patients with psychiatric disorders. Family members, on the other hand, may find themselves suddenly thrust into crisis situations with a loved one, struggling to understand an illness they know little about, all while dealing with their own powerful emotions.
The result, not surprisingly, is that families often do not know how to respond effectively when a loved one develops a mental illness. Anger, guilt, shame, and other negative emotions, reinforced by society’s continuing stigma about mental illness, may hobble families’ abilities to support patients. And while clinicians would like to better involve and support family members, doing so can become a daunting task in the real world of conflicting demands of patient privacy, overbooked schedules, and insurance paperwork.
Recognizing the challenges, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a free 12-week course, the Family-to-Family Education Program. The curriculum includes medically reviewed and regularly updated content about major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and substance use disorders.
Developed by a clinical psychologist, Dr. Joyce Burland, the program also reflects her experiences with several of her own family members who developed mental illnesses. A core concept of the course is that severe mental illness is traumatic for both the patient and the family, Dr. Burland explains. At the same time, we want to help family members better appreciate the lived experience of someone who is living with a mental illness. This course is designed to change people’s consciousness about mental illness.
How it works
Family members volunteer to teach the course after undergoing training in how to conduct the classes. Participants meet with instructors once a week for two to three hours at a time.
Participants first learn about the biological causes of mental illness. Mental illnesses are brain disorders. It’s nobody’s fault, they’re not bad parents, and these disorders have a physical basis just like other illnesses. As the course progresses, participants learn why physiological problems in the brain can manifest in behaviors, and how these disorders are diagnosed and treated.
Although most of the classes consist of lectures, there is time for participants to share stories related to content or to participate in skills-building sessions. For example, participants learn and practice reflective listening techniques, so that they understand the emotions a patient is expressing as well as the words he or she is using.