Addressing Stigma and Building Empathy: The Family’s Role in Psychiatric Care

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Family members can be crucial to their loved one’s mental health care and recovery. However, stigma can be a significant barrier to this role.

Stigma is rooted in fear and misunderstanding of people with mental illnesses. Educating people about the nature of mental illness and its treatment can help dispel these misconceptions.

Family Support

For those with mental health issues, family support can be invaluable. Families are often the first to notice and respond to their loved one’s behavior changes. They can also help identify a person’s symptoms and find the right treatment options.

However, the role of families in psychiatric care is complex. It requires building trusting relationships with family members and framing family support conversations as safe arenas for discussion. A recent study found that families of people with mental illness value a neutral third party leading the family support conversation and ensuring they remain on topic.

A family psychiatric care trained and credentialed to meet the specific needs of youth and adults with mental health concerns often provides this support. Unlike psychosocial approaches focusing on individualized assistance, these individuals can work directly with the patient and their family. They can provide support, empathy and education on various topics, including coping skills.


Families can learn more about mental illness and how it affects their loved ones through psychoeducation, a process of increasing awareness. This can help them better navigate health systems and access services by advocating for their loved ones and leveraging networks. They can also learn what symptoms to look for and how to seek help much sooner, potentially avoiding an unhealthy situation.

Psychiatrists should understand family systems theory, which describes how family relationships and functioning contribute to clinical symptoms and overall psychiatric well-being. They can use this to assess families and identify needs, including determining when a referral for family therapy may be necessary. They can then utilize family-based interventions to promote positive outcomes for patients. Ultimately, family engagement has been shown to improve several patient outcomes, including shorter lengths of stay in residential treatment facilities and increased community connections and natural supports post-discharge. It also helps to improve adherence and medication adherence in patients and reduce risk factors for relapse.


Counseling is a psychotherapy treatment that can help with various mental health issues. It helps to alleviate symptoms and uncover the psychological root cause of a person’s condition. Counseling can be conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists, social workers and other licensed mental health professionals.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and are licensed to prescribe medication in addition to conducting psychotherapy. They can also be a good resource for ruling out any underlying medical conditions contributing to a person’s situation.

Mental health counselors can be found through local psychiatric associations, community mental health centers and workplace employee assistance programs. They typically have master’s degrees in counseling and are licensed to practice psychotherapy. Many offer a sliding scale to determine session costs based on a client’s ability to pay. They are empathetic to their client’s needs. The first step is to set up an initial consultation with the therapist.

Support Groups

A support group allows people who are facing similar challenges to come together and provide each other with encouragement, comfort, and advice. The members act as role models, and they can empathize with each other’s situation in a way that medical professionals or family members cannot.

Tens of thousands of support groups, nationwide and internationally, address many different conditions. Many are mutual support groups led by facilitators who are not doctors and do not give medical advice. Others are structured, while others focus on specific problems or circumstances, such as domestic abuse, mental health issues, or grief and loss.

These groups may meet face-to-face or online and are usually free of charge. Some are open to anyone, while others have restrictions such as the number of new participants allowed per meeting or whether family members are welcome. Some groups feature guest speakers, such as nurses, social workers or psychologists.

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