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Close-up of a devastated young man holding his head in his hands and family supporting him during group therapy jpeg Close-up of a devastated young man holding his head in his hands and family supporting him during group therapy jpeg

Researchers Identify Positive Outcomes of Multidimensional Family Therapy on Justice-Involved Young Adults

Miller School of Medicine researchers and collaborating organizations looked at how effectively a modified version of Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) – initially developed and empirically validated with teenagers and their families – worked for young adults ages 19 to 25 in a criminal drug court program.

While family interventions have proven effective for both adolescents and adults, research in this area has mainly focused on families with teenagers, according to the study’s authors. Researchers built upon MDFT's strong evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating adolescents to explore its potential with young adults in addressing substance use and mental health issues.

The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, was implemented in the State of Florida 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Court in Miami-Dade County. 

Researchers noted that emerging adults experience a unique phase distinct from adolescence and later adulthood. This period is pivotal for transitioning into adult roles, influenced by both positive and negative factors from earlier life stages. It presents challenges, especially for those facing substance misuse, mental health issues, legal troubles, and complex family dynamics. 

“Research indicates that young adults have higher rates of mental health and substance use problems, arrests, and recidivism compared to adolescents and older adults,” said Howard Liddle, Ed.D., ABPP, professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, and the study’s first author.

“However, they often face difficulties accessing suitable services due to systemic gaps. Many only receive treatment when encountering the criminal justice system, which is not always equipped to offer the best care, resulting in high dropout rates and poor outcomes.”

Family involvement alone may not be sufficient to transform the lives of young adults with serious substance use and mental health challenges.

Interventions that involve parents and other family members by providing psychoeducation are limited because they only encourage family members to support the young adult’s recovery. MDFT differs and is hypothesized to be more powerful because it promotes change in family members, the authors emphasized.

“MDFT focuses on how parents influence and interact with their children, aiming to help young adults reduce substance misuse and other issues,” explained Cynthia Rowe, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, Division of Health Services Research Policy, and co-author of the study.

“This differs from other interventions that primarily focus on peers and the broader social network,” she added. 

The study challenges misconceptions that parents have less influence on young adults than children and teens, emphasizing that parents continue to play a crucial role. “These results support the idea that conducting family therapy with young adults and their parents together is practical and shows considerable promise,” said Dr. Rowe. 

Clinical outcomes included significant reductions in substance use, arrests, and legal risks, along with improvements in vocational functioning and employment status. “We noted significant declines in substance use over 6 months, as well as improvements in work status,” emphasized Dr. Liddle. These findings have important implications for involving families in public health interventions with young adults experiencing substance misuse, mental health and other issues.

Written by Deycha Torres Hernández
Published on October 10, 2023