Family Therapists Play Key Role in OCD Recovery

By Thea Cawley, LICSW

November 4, 2014

At some point in your life, either as a parent or child, you have likely attended an admission day such as the first day of school, camp, or college. The days leading up to admission are usually filled with feelings of excitement, hope, and often anxiety. Planning might have included researching directions, finding a hotel, making sure the car had enough gas, reviewing the “packing list”, and pulling out a suitcase from the back of the closet. At some point during that final day, family members often say their goodbyes, parting with reassuring questions, ensuring that you packed enough socks or have enough money on you should something happen. At home, families wait until the next letter, email, or phone call to hear about the highs and the lows of what their loved one is experiencing in their new surroundings.

When a person comes to the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute (OCDI) at McLean Hospital, the feelings they and their families experience are similar to those described above.

In order to ease the transition, family therapists at the OCDI meet with their newest patients and their families each Monday morning.

OCD Institute

“It is common during that first meeting for family members to express cautious optimism and anxiety. They are dropping off their loved one in an unknown environment at a time when the patient has been experiencing significant challenges, leaving them defenseless to struggle with their OCD,” explained Thea Cawley, LICSW. “Families typically express feeling sad, frustrated, and lost against the strength of the illness. To alleviate this sense of hopelessness, we require that family members participate in weekly family therapy meetings, either in person or via teleconference.”

According to Cawley, the goal of these meetings is to begin to assess how, and to what extent, OCD has impacted not only the patient but also family members, while also setting goals for family therapy.

When the OCDI first opened, family therapy was not part of the treatment plan. However, family therapists discovered that while a patient could improve during their stay at the OCDI, the patient was at risk for losing the gains they had made while participating in the program if sent home without the proper support.

“We understand the important role that families and supporters play in recovery from OCD - by having family members involved with treatment, they too have an opportunity to become educated about the illness while learning strategies to assist their loved one in managing OCD symptoms,” said Cawley. “They are also able to learn about the importance of aftercare planning, a crucial step in the recovery process.”

Family therapists also function as the link between the family and the treatment team. As the behaviorist on the team prepares the patient for managing their OCD symptoms with new and improved skills, the family therapist helps to create a home atmosphere that will prevent the OCD symptoms from reemerging.

“Through this collaborative effort, the patient and family members learn how to anticipate challenging scenarios, shifting old patterns in a positive direction so that they no longer have to struggle with daily survival,” added Cawley.

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