Nicholson leads international effort to help parents with mental illness

Nicholson 2010


Parenting is a significant life role for many adults, including those coping with serious mental illnesses. UMass Medical School clinical and research psychologist Joanne Nicholson, PhD, is one of a small group of behavioral health clinicians and researchers here and abroad who are united in their commitment to better care for families living with parental mental illness. For more than two decades, she and like-minded colleagues around the world have formed their own family of sorts, an international cadre of mental health experts and advocates who are helping adults who have psychiatric disabilities be successful parents.

“We are growing an international group of family researchers, providers and advocates focused on how a positive family life and improved parenting skills can enhance confidence and overall well-being for adults with serious mental illness,” said Dr. Nicholson, professor of psychiatry and family medicine & community health. “Our work complements the traditional emphasis on children of parents with mental illness. We help children by helping their parents.”

Nicholson became interested in family-centered psychiatric rehabilitation through her early experiences as a clinical psychologist conducting court-ordered evaluations of children who were considered at risk—often, she observed, because they had parents with mental illness. Since then, she has been a pioneer in the approach called supported parenting, which helps parents care for themselves and their children while maintaining as normal a family life as possible. Families receive traditional and non-traditional services, ranging from respite care to help with planning a child’s birthday party.

Nicholson has been at UMMS, where she directs the Child and Family Research Core of the Center for Mental Health Services Research, since 1984. In addition to leading an active research program, she writes extensively on the challenges facing families with parental illness, and provides training and consultation to professional and consumer groups. She is the lead author of the book Parenting Well When You’re Depressed: A Complete Resource for Maintaining a Healthy Family.

As a reflection of the reach of her work, Nicholson has been invited to lecture around the world. Most recently, she visited Norway to provide a keynote presentation at the international Developing Strengths and Resilience in Children conference, where colleagues gathered from around the world to share knowledge and build relationships. The interdisciplinary gathering presented research spanning national policy and public awareness, to practical interventions for parents, children and families.

This past May, Nicholson was tapped by her associates in Australia to visit six cities in 10 days as their international guest speaker for Schizophrenia Awareness Week. The highlight of the whirlwind trip was her delivery of the keynote Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture for the Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria in Melbourne, an event attended by more than 300 providers, politicians and community members.

During a stop in The Netherlands, Nicholson was gratified to learn that its government is launching a federally funded program to help parents with mental illness, developed parallel to a pilot project that she and colleagues at UMMS, in partnership with community organizations, initiated in Central Massachusetts. The Dutch program will implement what they found were the most effective interventions for helping families deal with stresses related to mental illness. Nicholson’s work has also taken her to New Zealand, Spain and Canada.

Last fall, as guest editor for a special issue of the peer-reviewed Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal on parents with psychiatric disabilities and their families, Nicholson was pleased to have the opportunity to highlight, in a single volume, the research of many of her international colleagues. “Regardless of a country’s health care system, government or culture, the common goal that informs our work is to go beyond the current interventions that focus solely on caring for mentally ill individuals, usually after they are already in crisis, to developing preventive strategies that help keep families together,” Nicholson concluded. “For every adult we help, we may be helping several children.”

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Joanne Nicholson, PhD, presented the 12th annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture at the Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria’s May event in Melbourne, Australia. As keynote speaker at the Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria’s annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture held in May in Australia, Joanne Nicholson, PhD, invoked a sentiment from a Boston Globe columnist that underscores the importance of her and her international colleagues’ work in supported parenting for adults with mental illness who are raising children. Joanne Nicholson, PhD, second from left, with Lyn Allison, board member for Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria (MIFV), Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle, and MIFV Executive Director Elizabeth Crowther at the Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria Corporate Breakfast held in Melbourne, Australia, on May 19.


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