What is family focused therapy for bipolar disorder

The University of Colorado Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center
is pleased to present

Aimee Sullivan, Ph.D
“Clinician Training in Family-Focused Therapy for Bipolar Disorders”

Tuesday, February 25, 2020
8:30am – 5:30pm

Lilly Marks Boardroom
CU Medicine Building
13199 E. Montview Blvd.
Aurora, CO 80045

This workshop is free of charge.
Psychologists, LCSWs, and LPCs can earn 6 CE credits for participation in this training.


Training in Family-Focused Therapy is generously supported through funding from
The Caring for Colorado Foundation (

To register or ask questions : email [email protected]

Program Description: Bipolar disorder (BD) is a highly recurrent, chronic illness associated with significant impairment in psychosocial functioning and quality of life. Research suggests that effective treatment improves social and vocational/academic functioning, quality of life, and reduces individual suffering for BD patients. Youth with BD, or those at high risk for BD, may particularly benefit from appropriate intervention, as effective treatment will not only reduce current symptoms but also benefit their future development.
Family-focused therapy (FFT) is a psychoeducational treatment for patients with BD focused on alleviation of mood symptoms, relapse prevention and enhanced psychosocial functioning. The protocol consists of three modules: psychoeducation; communication enhancement training; and problem-solving skills . The FFT treatment protocol includes session-by-session instructions for each of these modules, as well as supplements clinicians can use to address suicidality, anxiety disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and behavioral problems. Research indicates that FFT can be used effectively with adults, adolescents, and high-risk youth and their families.
Unfortunately, FFT is currently largely unavailable to patients with BD in Colorado. Through a generous grant from The Caring for Colorado Foundation, the CU Johnson Depression Center is hosting free workshops in FFT to improve clinician access, and ultimately patient access, to this evidence-based treatment.
Program Agenda:
8:30am – 9:00am: Check In (a light breakfast will be provided)

9:00am –10:15am: Working with Bipolar Patients

10:15am – 10:30am: Break

10:30am – 11:30pm: The Importance of the Family Environment

11:30am – 12:00pm: Introduction to Family-Focused Therapy

12:00pm – 12:45pm: Lunch Break (lunch will be provided)

12:45pm – 2:15pm: Psychoeducation Module

2:15pm – 2:30pm: Break

2:30pm – 3:45pm: Communication Skills Training and Problem-Solving Skills Modules

3:45pm – 4:00pm: Break

4:00pm – 4:30pm: Research Support

4:30pm – 5:00pm: Adjunct and Emerging Therapies

5:00pm – 5:30pm: Feedback and Questionnaires

Intended Audience: Behavioral health and medical providers who deliver clinical services to patients with bipolar disorder. Psychologists are eligible to receive CEs for participation in this training workshop.
Level of Programming: Intermediate
Learning Objectives: This day-long workshop will provide attendees with a thorough review of the FFT model, including:
• Learning Objective 1: Be able to describe appropriate assessment practices for bipolar disorder, including a review of the ways symptoms can present across populations (i.e., racial, sex, and developmental groups).
• Learning Objective 2: Be prepared to complete accurate assessments for bipolar disorder, with an emphasis on differential diagnosis.
• Learning Objective 3: Recognize the role of the family environment in the development and course of bipolar disorder, as well as the rationale for use of family treatment in working with this population.
• Learning Objective 4: Be prepared to recognize high vs low levels of Expressed Emotion in their case load.
• Learning Objective 5: Determine which families may be appropriate vs inappropriate for the Family-Focused Therapy (FFT) model, and review ways of increasing family motivation and adherence to the model.
• Learning Objective 6: Be prepared to provide the FFT Psychoeducation Module to their patients (emphasis on skill instruction and use of handouts)
• Learning Objective 7: Be prepared to provide the FFT Communication Enhancement Training Module to their patients (emphasis on skill instruction and use of handouts)
• Learning Objective 8: Be prepared to provide the FFT Problem-Solving Module to their patients (emphasis on skill instruction and use of handouts)
• Learning Objective 9: Practice FFT skills from each module in small groups during the training.
• Learning Objective 10: Compare FFT to other evidence-based practices for bipolar disorder, based on overview of completed and ongoing research.
• Learning Objective 11: List new and emerging alternative treatments for bipolar disorder
• Learning Objective 12: Describe how FFT can be modified based on patient, clinician, or clinic needs.
• Learning Objective 13: Discuss use of the FFT model in one’s own practice.
Presenter: Aimee Sullivan, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and Senior Instructor at the University of Colorado Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center. Dr. Sullivan received her B.S. in Honors Biopsychology and Cognitive Sciences from the University of Michigan. She earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology with Dr. David Miklowitz at the University of Colorado Boulder, and completed her predoctoral clinical internship at UCLA. She specializes in the use of Dr. Miklowitz’s Family-Focused Treatment (FFT) for adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder, and youth at high risk for bipolar disorder.
Dr. Sullivan has been a member of the Colorado Family Project for more than 10 years, an organization providing clinical services through nationally-funded research of FFT. She has assisted with the completion of randomized controlled trials investigating use of FFT, and has served as a lead study psychologist for four years. Dr. Sullivan has trained advanced graduate students in the FFT model and provided dozens of research presentations and invited lectures to clinicians and educators reviewing the components of FFT.

Bipolar Disorder Treatment – Family Focused Therapy (FFT)


Family Focused Therapy or FFT is a hybrid of two forms of psychotherapy. It is both a variety of psychoeducation (a type of therapy whose main goal is to teach patients and their families about the nature of their illness), and also a variety of family therapy. Family therapies are distinguished from other forms of therapy by their attention to family dynamics and relationships as contributing factors that help or hurt illness. Family therapies are sometimes referred to as ecological therapies because they recognize that individuals and their bipolar disorder (in this case) cannot truly be considered to be independent entities separate from the family systems that contain them.

Family Focused Therapy starts with a deep appreciation of the ways that patients’ family system and the complicated web of relationships found therein may support patients’ conditions, or alternatively, exacerbate them. FFT therapists work to identify difficulties and conflicts within the family that may contribute to patient and family stress, and then help the involved family members to find ways to resolve those difficulties and conflicts. The term “expressed emotion” refers to critical, hostile, or over-involved attitudes and behaviors that family members may have toward or act out with other family members who have psychiatric disorders. Family focused therapists work to help family members to become aware of and bring under control any expressed emotion they may be acting out.

For example, the parents of an adolescent daughter with bipolar disorder may be quite upset by their child’s illness, and as a result, motivated to act in an over-controlling manner that the child rebels against. The daughter’s rebellion adds significant stress to her already complicated condition. Recognizing this dynamic, the family focused therapist might advise the parents to find less controlling ways to express their caring and concern, and help them to manage their own stress in a manner more independent from their daughter than they were able to manage previously.

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Family focused therapists also educate all family members about the nature of bipolar disorder, bipolar treatment, and ways that family members can best support their affected member. For example, the therapist might teach family members about the nature of manic and depressive mood swings, about the differences between Bipolar I Disorder and Bipolar II Disorder, and about the need for bipolar medications to be the primary means of therapy. In addition to providing lecture or handout style educational information, therapists may also provide assistance and training to support the family’s development of communication, and problem solving skills.

Bipolar disorder is a very serious condition associated with impulsive and self-destructive behavior. Bipolar suicidal thoughts behaviors are frequent, as are impulsive sexual behaviors and reckless spending. Not surprisingly, families are frequently deeply affected by their bipolar member, and themselves experience a range of deeply felt emotions, not the least of which is a sense of helplessness to fix bipolar symptoms. Such helplessness can easily turn into anger, frustration and aggravation expressed towards the bipolar family member. Caring for bipolar family members can easily become exhausting and infuriating. Family members can get burned out from trying to help, particularly if the patient is a reluctant patient. They may stop supporting their bipolar family member. Family focused therapists look for these sort of feelings and interactions (or lack of interactions), work to re-channel any aggression that may be present, promote re-engagement of family members who have checked out, and in general, promote a balanced blend of acceptance of the bipolar patient’s limitations, as well as the need for the patient to take age-appropriate responsibility for his or her own well-being. Addressing family emotion in FFT can be a powerful tool for fostering stability within the family unit.

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Bipolar Disorder Treatment – Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT)


Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT) is based on the observations that bipolar disorders are essentially body rhythm disturbances, and that altered body rhythms (e.g., circadian rhythms, seasonal rhythms, and social/occupational rhythms) can lead to mood disturbances. Body rhythm disturbances such as insomnia and other sleep disturbances, can be corrected or managed by helping patients to set up and stick to healthy sleep routines. As sleeping routines are stabilized, many body rhythms problems tend to go away.

Patients in IPSRT are taught to keep a bipolar mmood chart to track their mood states and their daily activities and body rhythms. Patients record when they eat, sleep, shop, etc. on a social rhythm metric chart. They also complete an interpersonal inventory, noting social interactions, such as conflicts and stresses that have an effect on their daily body rhythms and thus on their bipolar mood disorder. For instance, an argument with one’s spouse is recorded, particularly if that argument resulted in insomnia and agitation. The bipolar mood chart is analyzed and discussed during psychotherapy sessions, where it becomes an important tool for raising awareness of the inter-relationship between body rhythms and mood. Therapists help patients to establish and maintain steady and stable routines such as taking bipolar medication consistently and going to sleep at regular times. They also help patients with bipolar disorder to recognize the sorts of activities and interactions that cause their body rhythms to become disturbed so that these activities and interactions can be avoided. For some patients, this self-monitoring and problem-solving variety of bipolar therapy is effective in helping prevent recurring mood episodes.

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