Families in Psychiatry

Family-oriented care in adult psychiatric residency


The Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Committee on the Family published an updated curriculum in October 2021 on family-oriented care. The first curriculum, published in 2006, was nominated as the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training model curriculum for family-oriented care. The updated curriculum, produced by the GAP family committee and guests, is shorter and more focused.

The following is a summary of the introduction and the highlights.


Use of family systems–based techniques in the diagnosis and care of patients is a key evidence-based tool for psychiatric disorders. However, it is not a current Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education Training training requirement, and it is possible to complete psychiatry residency without exposure to this key framework.

Dr. Alison Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Here, we highlight the importance of considering patients through a “family systems” lens and the incorporation of multiple individuals from an individual patient’s identified system in their care.

Current medicine curricula emphasize patient autonomy, one of the core pillars of ethics. Autonomy is the cornerstone of the everyday practice within medicine of communicating all risks, benefits, and alternatives of a proposed treatment to a patient making decisions about desired paths forward. This prevents paternalistic care in which the doctor “knows best” and makes decisions for the patient. Unfortunately, the emphasis of this pillar has morphed over time into the idea that the individual patient is the only person to whom this information should be provided or from whom information should be obtained.

Extensive research proves conclusively that family support, education, and psychoeducation improve both patient and family functioning in medical and psychiatric illness. When clinicians focus solely on the identified patient, they miss the ability to obtain key information that might influence diagnosis and treatment as well as overlook the opportunity to use the structure and support system around a patient to strengthen their care and improve treatment outcomes.

The network and family dynamics around a patient can be critical to providing accurate information on medication adherence and symptoms, supporting recovery, and handling emergencies. Markedly improved patient outcomes occur when family members are seen as allies and offered support, assessment, and psychoeducation. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association’s Practice Guidelines on the treatment of schizophrenia (2020), major depressive disorder (2010), and bipolar disorder (2002) include the expectation that patients’ family members will be involved in the assessment and treatment of patients. Yet, training in how to incorporate these practices is often minimal or nonexistent during residency.

A family systems orientation is distinguished by its view of the family as a transactional system. Stressful events and problems of an individual member affect the whole family as a functional unit, with ripple effects for all members and their relationships. In turn, the family response – how the family handles problems – contributes significantly to positive adaptation or to individual and relational dysfunction. Thus, individual problems are assessed and addressed in the context of the family, with attention to socioeconomic and other environmental stressors.

A family systems approach is distinguished less by who is in the room and more by the clinician’s attention to relationship systems in assessment and treatment planning. We need to consider how family members may contribute to – and be affected by – problem situations. Most importantly, regardless of the source of difficulties, we involve key family members who can contribute to needed changes. Interventions are aimed at modifying dysfunctional patterns, tapping family resources, and strengthening both individual and family functioning.

A family systemic lens is useful for working with all types of families, for example: refugee families, thinking through child adoption processes, working with families with specific social disadvantages, etc. Incorporating issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation is important in this work, as is working with larger systems such as schools, workplaces, and health care settings.

As opposed to previous viewpoints that family therapy is the only “family” skill to be taught during residency, the GAP committee proposes that psychiatric residents should be trained in skills of family inclusion, support, and psychoeducation, and that these skills should be taught throughout the residency. Our goal is to have residents be able to consider any case through a family systems lens, to understand how patients’ illnesses and their family systems have bidirectional effects on each other, to perform a basic assessment of family system functioning, and to use this information in diagnostic and treatment planning.


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