Family as medicine: New research study indicates that family therapy might be the best intervention for children and teens suffering from mental health problems


A new research study published in the journal Residential Treatment for Children and Youth has found that childhood mental health problems do not exist in a vacuum and instead are intimately intertwined with how well their family as a whole functions.

The study, "Hidden Figures: Is Improving Family Functioning a Key to Better Treatment Outcomes for Seriously Mentally Ill Children?" is the largest research study examining treatment outcomes for 18,000 children and adolescents with serious mental health conditions placed into inpatient programs. The study was conducted by Dr. Paul Sunseri, researcher and Executive Director of New Horizons Child and Family Services.

The study found that for children treated in these programs, how well they functioned both at the time they entered into treatment and at the time they completed it was highly associated with how well their immediate family functioned. Using a measure of how the child's family was functioning at the time he or she was admitted was predictive of numerous treatment outcomes: whether the child successfully completed treatment, his or her overall level of psychological functioning, how much his or her behavior improved over the course of treatment, and whether or not the child was able to return home or  somewhere else for more treatment.

"Family functioning" was defined as the ability for families to solve problems, communicate well, negotiate conflict, treat each other respectfully. For families who struggled the most in these areas, the child or teen had demonstrably worse mental health conditions and continued to struggle even after treatment was completed.

"We tend to view mental health problems in children and teens as something that's gone wrong within them needing to be fixed, but that focus is too narrow. Most parents will start out by looking for an individual therapist to treat their son or daughter's problems, like depression or anxiety. While individual therapy can be helpful, this study suggests that the most potent form of treatment for adolescents isn't individual therapy, it's family therapy," said Paul Sunseri, Psy.D., researcher and Executive Director of New Horizons Child and Family Services. "Family is medicine. Adolescent mental health problems can be caused by, worsened, or alleviated depending on the quality of relationships within the family. Family dynamics are key and the absolute best starting point to help the adolescent recover."

Sunseri recommends that mental health providers routinely conduct some type of brief assessment of the family to determine how well it's functioning. There are a significant number of children who present with mental health problems that come from low functioning families that go unnoticed by providers (what he calls the "Hidden Figures"). "By identifying struggling families, a therapist is then best positioned to offer the type of help the child and his or her family need the most: family therapy, or at a minimum type combination of family and individual therapy."

There are several forms of family therapy that have significant research backing up their effectiveness such as Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT).

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About New Horizons Child and Family Services:

Dr. Paul Sunseri a researcher, clinician, and speaker is the founder of three community mental health agencies, including New Horizons Child and Family Services. He has been working with children and teens with the most challenging behavioral issues for over 30 years.