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The link between genius and mental illness

heal the whole family

Family therapy helps heal the whole family

By providing education and support

Scott is depressed. He’s feeling sad and worthless and he’s avoiding family members. They don’t know what to say or do. They’re afraid they might make things worse. His wife Lynn feels like she’s carrying all the responsibility for the family on her shoulders. Jana has bipolar disorder and lately has been irritable and angry. Her family members are confused and frustrated. “The kids and I feel like we’re always walking on eggshells,” says her husband Kurt. When someone is living with mental illness, it’s hard for family members to understand what he’s going through or how to help. Their loved one’s behavior can be destructive to family relationships. Over time, exhausted caregivers can become demoralized and children can grow up feeling alienated.

Individual therapy can help the person struggling with his or her illness. But it can help to have the whole family involved in treatment. Psychiatry typically focuses only on the patient. “But depression and mania never occur in a vacuum, and their effects can ripple through the whole family,” says Igor Galynker, MD, associate chairman of psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York and founder of its Family Center for Bipolar Disorder.

Research shows that patients are more likely to stay on their medication and stay out of the hospital when family members are involved in treatment. When family or friends learn to recognize and communicate early signs of trouble, they can take preemptive steps to help avoid a crisis. “Patients say they feel more supported when their family members are more knowledgeable about their illness,” says Allison Lee, M.D., also on the staff of The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder.

“Family members benefit from family therapy,” she says, “because their needs are being met as well. They may be feeling overwhelmed. Because of the stigma of mental illness, they may not be getting support for themselves from others. Working with the patient’s doctors, they learn techniques to manage their own stress and cope with their loved one’s illness.” Patients must give their consent for their doctor or therapist to communicate with family members about symptoms, medication and some aspects of treatment. In family sessions, the patient and family members can learn about their illness and its treatment: how to recognize symptoms, identify triggers and warning signs; and how to communicate openly about them.

At The Family Center for Bipolar disorder, professionals help children understand how bipolar illness can temporarily change the way a parent acts. The non-bipolar parent is counseled on how to shield children from the potentially damaging consequences of out-of-control bipolar behavior. “With Jana’s permission, the kids and I started having regular sessions with her and her psychiatrist,” said Kurt. “It’s made a big difference. We’ve all learned a lot and we’re more supportive of each other. There’s more trust all around. We felt helpless and frustrated before. Now we have tools to be able to take better care of her and ourselves.”