While there is clear evidence that families have a major impact on the health outcomes of adults with serious mental illnesses, little is known about the effectiveness of education and support groups in helping family members cope with having mentally ill relatives. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health to study the benefits of participating in a family-to-family education program to enable people to effectively handle the mental illness of a relative or loved one.
“It can be very difficult when a loved one is mentally ill,” says Lisa Dixon, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and principal investigator for the study. “Some of the stressful aspects of helping a relative with a serious mental illness are disrupted family roles and schedules, drains on time and energy, financial difficulties and involvement in the often complex mental health system. These challenges are often so great that relationships are compromised and the well-being of the patient can be at risk.”
The National Alliance of the Mentally Ill has created a program called the Family-to-Family Education Program, a 12-week class with a highly-structured standardized curriculum, developed and conducted entirely by trained family members of those with a mental illness. The goal is to provide education about mental illness and treatments, emotional and practical support and problem solving and communication skills for those dealing with the mental illness of a family member. “We hear regularly from participants that the course has helped them better understand their family member’s illness and enabled them to empathize with their struggle,” says Joyce Burland, program author and director of education for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill. “We are optimistic that this study will expand the evidence base for the Family-to-Family program and will show that the program works.”
Dr. Dixon and her research team plan to work with existing Family-to-Family Education Programs in Baltimore City, Montgomery County, Frederick County and Howard County and enroll approximately 300 adult members in the study. Half of the participants will enroll in the class right away and the other half will be assigned to a control group that waits for three months. Participants who received the class will be compared to those who waited for three months. All participants will be evaluated prior to enrollment, three months into the study and nine months after their initial evaluation to determine how well they retained what they learned in the program.
As part of the study, Dr. Dixon will also investigate the benefit to patients of having a family member participate in the program. “We anticipate that the patients will have better outcomes because their family members will have a clearer understanding of their diagnosis and an arsenal of coping mechanisms at their disposal,” Dr. Dixon says.
“In fulfilling care-giving roles, families are in desperate need of information and support,” says Dr. Dixon. “And while there is an abundance of professionally-led programs, these are usually targeted for the ill person and not those caring for them. We want to know the effectiveness of this new crop of peer-directed family education groups in helping family members navigate the complexities of a serious mental illness.”
For more information on the study and on the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, please call 1-800-379-3705.
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