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To facilitate the development of a therapeutic alliance in genetic counseling, it is important that the counselor understands how families might perceive the condition that constitutes the reason for the referral. Through training and professional practice, genetic counselors develop a thorough understanding of families' perceptions of the conditions that are common indications for genetic counseling. But, for referral indications that are less frequent, like serious mental illnesses, genetic counselors may feel less confident in their understanding of the family's experience, or in their ability to provide psychosocial support when serious mental illness is reported in a family history. This may impede the establishment of a therapeutic alliance. As research shows that most referrals for genetic counseling related to serious mental illness are for female first-degree family members of affected individuals, we sought to explore how this group perceives serious mental illness. To provide a frame of reference with which genetic counselors may be more familiar, we explored how women perceived serious mental illness compared to other common complex disorders in their family. We conducted semi-structured interviews with women who had a child with a serious mental illness (schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder) and a first-degree relative with another common complex disorder (diabetes, heart disease, cancer). Interviews were transcribed and subjected to thematic analysis. Saturation was reached when nine women had participated. Serious mental illness was perceived as being more severe and as having a greater impact on the family than diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Themes identified included guilt, stigma, and loss. Some of the most important issues that contribute to mothers' perceptions that serious mental illness is more severe than other common complex disorders could be effectively addressed in genetic counseling. Developing a heightened awareness of how family members experience a relative's mental illness may help genetic counselors to be better able to provide psychosocial support to this group, whether serious mental illness constitutes the primary reason for referral or appears in the family history during counseling for a different referral reason.
Masters Program in Genetic Counseling, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA.
This article was published in the following journal.
Name: Journal of genetic counseling
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