Caring for a family member with mental illness can take its toll, but a widely available education and support program for relatives of the mentally ill called Family-to-Family (FTF) can significantly improve a family’s coping ability.
About 250,000 family members have participated in the program since 1991. The free 12-week program, offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is available in many locations throughout the United States, in two Canadian provinces and in three regions in Mexico. More than 3,500 people volunteer as teachers, and it is supported by local donations or municipal funds.
Two prior studies suggest that FTF helps alleviate caregivers’ stress and allows them to gain a sense of empowerment over their situation. For the current study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Lisa Dixon, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Maryland, and team wanted to determine its effectiveness through a randomized controlled trial.
The study consisted of 318 volunteers with a mentally ill relative. Half of the participants were assigned to FTF immediately after enrolling; the other half were wait-listed for the program for at least three months (control condition). The wait-listed participants were free to seek assistance from other sources.
Participants were interviewed when the program began and then again three months later. They answered questions regarding their problem-solving and coping skills, their overall distress level and worries about their ill relative’s situation. They were also asked about their sense of empowerment to deal with challenges within the family, the mental health system, and the community. Participants were also quizzed on their factual knowledge of mental illness.
Participants enrolled in FTF showed far greater improvements in dealing with their ill relative’s disorder than the waitlisted control group. Specifically, they had learned more about the illness and gained a sense of empowerment in the family, service system and community. FTF participants also had a greater sense of acceptance regarding their family member’s illness as well as improved problem-solving skills, compared to the control group. The study also suggests that FTF participants’ overall sense of emotional distress was lessened.
Finally, researchers believe that FTF improves coping skills among relatives of the mentally ill and suggest that the program can have a positive influence on how family members solve problems and “navigate emotional difficulties” surrounding their loved one’s disorder. The study results support those found in the previous studies; however, more research is required to conclusively prove whether the positive effects of FTF can help the individuals with mental illness for whom the family members were taking the class.
The study was published June 2011 in Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association.