Harvard Mental Health Letter

Educating and empowering families

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.
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