Family understanding and communication about an adult relative’s mental health problem: A systematic narrative review

Rebecca J. Gammage, Lizette Nolte

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
92 Downloads (Pure)


What is known on the subject?: Adults who support an adult family member with a severe and enduring mental health problem often experience carer burden. Over time, this often negatively affects their mental and physical health and social well-being. Understanding and communicating about mental health problems in families can help to improve resilience and coping among both adults and children. What does this paper add to existing knowledge?: We conducted a review of studies looking at how adult relatives understand and communicate about an adult family member's mental health problem. The findings highlight that how relatives make sense of MHP is related to historical family relationships, their mental health literacy and whether they see themselves as a “carer” or not. The findings also show that little research to date has explored how adult relatives talk with children about their parent's difficulties, and how the adults’ understanding might affect what children learn about the MHP. What are the implications for practice?: There is a research gap to be addressed regarding family communication with children about parental mental health problems. This knowledge gap likely impacts family-focused mental health nursing and therapy provision. Mental health nursing, therapeutic and support workers and advocates are ideally positioned to assist relatives with improving their mental health literacy and confidence communicating about mental health, and to promote inclusion of relatives and children in interventions. Abstract: Introduction Relatives are profoundly affected by an adult family member's severe and enduring mental health problem (MHP). The burdens of caring impact on adult relatives’ emotional, physical and social well-being. How relatives make meaning and communicate about the MHP is thought to affect family talk about mental health, and this can impact family coping and well-being. Aim No review has yet drawn together research about how adult relatives of people with severe and enduring MHP make meaning and communicate about their relatives’ difficulties. We aimed to address this gap. Method We conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed primary research. SCOPUS, PubMed, Psychnet, SCIE, Cochrane and CINAHL+ databases were searched. Results Nineteen papers qualified for inclusion. Findings are organized under four themes: making meaning about the MHP and affected individual; conceptualizing the self in the presence of the MHP; meaning-making processes underlying relatives’ well-being outcomes; and relatives’ perspectives on family talk about the MHP. Discussion Historical relationships, caregiver identity and mental health literacy moderate relatives’ understanding and talk about the MHP. Implications for practice Psychoeducation and communication support for relatives should be provided by mental health practitioners. Future research should address familial communication about MHP, including with children.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)763-788
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing
Issue number6
Early online date13 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • carers/families
  • communication
  • maternal mental health
  • psychoeducational family work
  • systematic literature reviews


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