Most of the time, when we think about someone who has a substance abuse problem or mental illness, we think about how it affects their lives. However, the reality is that substance abuse and mental illness affect the one with the substance or psychological problem. When someone is struggling with addiction or mental illness, their problems involve those around them. We are individuals, but we are part of communities, too. Substance abuse and mental illnesses are often the results of many factors that are complicated and connected to many other things. If we only address the individual, it is possible to miss part of the problem and, therefore, part of the solution.
Those who have loved ones experiencing substance abuse or mental illness are likely very aware of how significantly it impacts their lives. It can cause emotional turmoil. Sometimes the family members can become exasperated, angry, or worn out dealing with the loved one. Family members may not know how to best support the loved one struggling with addiction or mental illness, and this can cause further stress and chaos. Family therapy seeks to come alongside patients and family members in exactly these sorts of situations.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is a form of counseling that takes seriously the individual’s setting and how it impacts an individual’s well-being. This form of therapy is often practiced by marriage and family therapists, licensed counselors, and clinical social workers. In this setting, “family” is not restricted to blood ties. What is important is the close community around an individual with addiction or mental illness. Who is affected by this individual’s actions? Who is significant and important in their lives? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, any of the following could be a part of family therapy:
- Spouses or partners
- Other relatives or extended family
- Step- and foster parents or children
- Friends, colleagues, mentors, and sponsors
- Others of similar closeness who are supportive
Family therapy does not always occur with the other family members present, though. While family therapy may involve the patient and family members present in the session, it may also be an individual session with the therapist. In these situations, the therapist seeks to work through issues related to the patient’s family and substance abuse or mental illness. The goal is to work through any family problems and seek to help the patient see how their struggles impact others.
What to Expect in Family Therapy
Family therapy is often a short-term process of around twelve sessions and fifty to sixty minutes each session. In some cases, this will be adjusted based on the situation and what is needed. In many cases, family therapy is begun after the patient has made some progress toward sobriety and is actively committed to recovery. This timing is important to ensure that family therapy is as useful as possible in overcoming substance abuse and mental illness.
Two objectives for family therapy:
- Support: Family therapy provides an opportunity for the patient and the family to communicate to know how to support the patient properly. It is not always obvious how a family can support a patient in recovery, and every person is different. Family therapy allows the patient and family to work together with a therapist to determine how the family can come alongside the patient so that relapse can be avoided or lessened.
- Strengthen: Family therapy also provides an opportunity for the family to grow and strengthen their emotional state. Often addiction and mental illness can cause great chaos in families, and life adds enough trouble on its own. Family therapy allows the opportunity to work through some of these difficulties so that the patient and their family can begin a positive journey to emotional wellness.
Types of Family Therapy
There are various types and methods with family therapy, which often depend on the institution and practitioner. People are complicated, and what works for one person might not work for another. For this reason, many therapists may tailor the format of therapy to the patient and their family. Some common forms of family therapy include structural therapy, systemic family therapy, strategic family therapy, and Bowenian therapy.
Benefits of Family Therapy
Family therapy can be a crucial step in recovery, especially when there is substance abuse with a co-occurring mental illness. Beyond helping the patient make progress in the recovery journey, family therapy is of great benefit to the family around the patient. It is difficult to know how best to support your loved one, and it can be difficult to have honest conversations about what is going on. Family therapy provides a safe and secure format for addressing these common issues. Some of the benefits include:
- Increasing cohesion within the family
- Deepening patient’s motivation for progress
- Providing support to the patient
- Supporting emotional health of patient and family
- Overcoming communication barriers
Goals of Family Therapy
As addressed above, two of the main objectives for family therapy are to support the individual in the journey of recovery and strengthen the family’s emotional health. To do this, certain emotional issues are identified to be addressed. There is a progression of emotional healing that is desired in family therapy:
- From distrust to reconciliation
- From guilt to forgiveness
- From stress to strength
- From frustration to understanding
- From despair to hope
- From sadness to support
- From anger to peace
- From conflict to agreement
- From crisis to resolution
Family Therapy in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment
Family therapy does not replace individual therapy but can be a great addition to it. In many cases, individuals need to begin with a solid residential program.[vii] Once they have begun making progress with their treatment, family therapy can be initiated to help build upon and further this progress. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, this is even more crucial when there is a co-occurring mental illness and a substance abuse problem. Many centers will utilize family therapy as part of the treatment process. For more information about treatment options, please take a look at our programs.