Family systems theory in psychotherapy with people with learning disabilities may offer alternative way to view presenting problems

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This paper set out to describe the value of using family systems theory as a meta-theory in psychotherapy with people with persons with learning disabilities and their families at different stages of the family life cycle.

Family systems theory views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It posits that changes in one person’s functioning will be followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others, suggesting an ever present interdependence, although of course families may vary in their degree of  interdependence.

The author suggests that given that people with learning disabilities may often have  high involvement with their families throughout their lives, family systems theory might be especially relevant to their mental health treatment. She also suggests that as adults with learning disabilities may well live in family-like group settings that this systems theory may potentially be more widely applicable.

The author describes a number of case studies of people with learning disabilities or their families who had presented to psychotherapy with mental health or behavioural issues.

She suggests that although family systems theory is a well established school of psychotherapeutic treatment, its value in treating individuals with learning has not been explored in the literature.

She concludes that the case studies presented outline the de-pathologising effect of applying a family systems filter to presenting problems which enables a shift in the group dynamics rather than treating only the individual symptoms.

Psychotherapy with families impacted by intellectual disability, throughout the lifespan, Hill-Weld J, in Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities 5, 5, 26-33

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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