Family-Focused Therapy

The Problem:

  • Bipolar disorder (BD) is a highly recurrent, chronic severe mental illness that can be associated with significant impairment in psychosocial functioning and quality of life.
  • Nationally, only 50% of individuals with BD receive any treatment during their lives, and only 19% get adequate treatment (NIMH, 2016).
  • As reported in 2014 by The Denver Post in their in-depth report Breakdown: Mental Health in Colorado, approximately 260,000 adults and children are living with severe mental illness in Colorado. Given limited access to effective treatment, a distressing number of these individuals receive care only when their illness has reached the level of crisis.

 The Solution: 

  • Increase patient access to effective treatment models by increasing provider access to trainings in effective treatment models.
  • With support from the Caring for Colorado Foundation, the Johnson Depression Center is offering community clinicians free training and ongoing case consultation in Family-Focused Therapy, an evidence-based treatment for bipolar disorder.
  • In an effort to maximize provider access to FFT, training in the model can be completed through day-long workshops held at the Johnson Depression Center, or abbreviated (approximately 5 hr) seminars completed in providers’ own community facilities.

 What is Family-Focused Therapy?

Family-focused treatment (FFT) is a psycho-educational treatment for patients with bipolar disorder (BD) focused on alleviation of mood symptoms, relapse prevention and enhanced psychosocial functioning.

The protocol consists of three modules:

  1. Psychoeducation: the family learns about symptoms of bipolar disorder, develops coping skills to address symptoms and stressors, and develops a relapse prevention plan;
  2. Communication Enhancement Training: the family learns a range of skills to improve maladaptive communication patterns;
  3. Problem-Solving Skills: the therapist teaches specific skills to address problems that create conflict in the home.

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. FFT has been adapted for use with adults and youth with bipolar disorder, as well as those who are at high risk for developing bipolar disorder, and is available in 21- and 12-session versions.

Research indicates that FFT can be used effectively with adults (Miklowitz, 2003a, 2003b; Rea et al. 2003), adolescents (Miklowitz, 2008), and high-risk youth (Miklowitz and Chang, 2008; 2010) and their families. Across 10 randomized controlled trials, use of FFT has been associated with reduced depressive symptoms, decreased risk of recurrence, and improved psychosocial functioning/quality of life. FFT is associated with reduced rates of re-hospitalization over two years, in part because patients and caregivers learn to identify and intervene with early signs of recurrence (Rea, 2003). Furthermore, inclusion of family members in FFT means that clinicians have the opportunity to provide skills to not only the BD patient, but also to other impacted family members who attend sessions; as such, FFT is a particularly cost-effective way to increase treatment access for multiple individuals within a family.

The next free FFT workshop will be held March 12 at 11:30am. Click on the Training Workshops below for more details.

Family-Focused Therapy for Bipolar Disorders with Dr. Aimee Sullivan
Lunch and Learn

March 12, 11:30am

Alfalfas Community Room, 1651 Broadway Boulder, CO 80302.

This workshop is free of charge; training in Family-Focused Therapy is generously supported by The Caring for Colorado Foundation

To register, e-mail

Workshop description

Aimee Sullivan, PhD. from the University of Colorado Johnson Depression Center will be discussing evidenced-based Family-Focused Therapy. 

Learn tools and techniques that can support people with bipolar disorder and their families through psycho-education, improved communication and problem-solving skills. Get an overview of this treatment modality, the role of the family environment and cover why it is especially important to reduce family conflict for people with bipolar disorder. Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are available.

Intended Audience

Mental health providers (therapists, nurses, physicians) who currently work with patients with bipolar disorder. This workshop will review use of the FFT protocol with adults and youth (i.e., >9 yrs).

Click here for more information.

  • Available for clinics with at least 8 providers interested in completing a 5-hour, onsite FFT training.
  • Seminars are personalized regarding use of the FFT protocol with the clinic’s patient characteristics, provider specialty and clinic structure.
  • Clinicians are asked to provide thorough feedback during, and 6 months after, their participation in their initial training, to inform the effectiveness, accessibility and applicability of the training content.
  • Clinics are encouraged to schedule monthly expert case consultation to maximize clinician education, satisfaction and ultimate use of FFT with their patients. Research strongly suggests that the addition of consultation following initial training improves clinicians’ self-efficacy, proficiency and subsequent use of the evidence-based treatment (e.g., Beidas et al., 2012; Sholomskas et al, 2005; Smith et al., 2007) compared to training alone. Additionally, engagement in post-training consultation has been associated with increased clinician satisfaction (Lu, 2012), confidence (Fritz, 2013; Hoge, 2014), and reduced stress and clinician burnout (Hoge, 2014) – a particular concern for clinicians working with high-needs patients like those with bipolar disorder.

Aimee Sullivan, PhD

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 served as a lead study psychologist for three 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.

If you are interested in learning more about this program or scheduling an FFT training for your clinic, please contact Dr. Aimee Sullivan.