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Family Therapy Helps Children at Risk for Bipolar Disorder

Published on 11th March 2013
Rick Nauert PhD


New research finds that family therapy is more effective for children at high risk for bipolardisorder than shorter duration educational treatment.

In the study, researchers found children and adolescents with major depression or sub-threshold forms of bipolar disorder — and who had at least one first-degree relative with bipolar disorder — responded better to a 12-session family-focused treatment than to a briefer educational treatment.

Researchers identified 40 youth (average age 12 years) who were at risk for developing bipolar disorder.

The participants had diagnoses of major depressive disorder, cyclothymic disorder, or bipolar disorder, not otherwise specified (brief and recurrent episodes of mania or hypomania that did not meet full diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder), and had at least one first-degree relative (usually a parent) with bipolar I or II disorder.

Study participants were randomly assigned to family-focused treatment (FFT) consisting of 12 family sessions over 4 months of psychoeducation (learning strategies to manage mood swings), communication skills training, or problem-solving skills training; or 1-2 family informational sessions (educational control, or EC).

Of the 40 participants, 60 percent were taking psychiatric medications upon entry, and continued taking recommended medications throughout the study.

Participants in the family-focused treatment group recovered from their initial depressive symptoms in an average of 9 weeks, compared to 21 weeks in the educational control group.

Participants who received FFT also had more weeks in full remission from mood symptoms over the study year. Improvements in mania symptoms on the Young Mania Rating Scale were greater in the FFT group as well.

The study participants who lived in families that were rated high in expressed emotion, a measure of critical comments or emotional overprotectiveness in parents, took almost twice as long to recover from their mood symptoms as those in families rated low in expressed emotion.

A secondary analysis indicated that youth from high expressed emotion families who were treated with family-focused treatment spent more weeks in remission over the year than those treated with just education.

Study authors David J. Miklowitz, Ph.D., of the UCLA School of Medicine, and Kiki D. Chang, M.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine, cautioned that the length of follow-up (one year) was too short to determine whether these children would develop full bipolar disorder.

“Nonetheless,” he said, “catching bipolar disorder at its earliest stages, stabilizing symptoms that have already developed, and helping the family to cope effectively with the child’s mood swings may have downstream effects that improve the long-term outcomes of high-risk children.”

The article appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.


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