Center for Families and Health


The Ackerman Center for Families and Health, under the leadership of Evan Imber-Black, PhD, addressed the profound challenges posed by illness to families, patients and their medical providers.

  • What is the impact of illness on family well-being?
  • How does it affect couple, parent-child and intergenerational relationships?
  • How do family relationships affect the course of an illness?

“During the two years that my father struggled with colon cancer, my family spent long hours at the hospital. My mother experienced depression and anxiety as she watched my father deteriorate. My siblings and I seemed to engage in old patterns of jealousy and competition that we hadn’t shown in decades. Not once, in all the time my father was in and out of the hospital, did anyone on the staff offer to meet with us as a family. Our relationships were disintegrating.

A friend encouraged us to contact the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute. The therapists met with us as a family, helped my mom to cope, and enabled my brothers and I to sort out our old differences that this cancer had brought back to life. They walked along side of us through my father’s final illness and death. We came through this terrible loss as a stronger family.”

The Center for Families and Health offered effective Family Therapy treatment and research for families experiencing acute, chronic or life-threatening illness. Collaboration and training for medical professionals and allied health care professions is provided as well as consultations with health care facilities and staff. Assistance was also given to families and patients facing the complexities of new medical technologies.

Using The Center for Families and Health Multiple Family Discussion Groups (MFDG), many of the Center’s projects brought families together who were confronting and living with illness to meet with other families in similar situations. Families gained an understanding of how the illness itself impacts family relationships. They learned how to understand that there is an illness while keeping the illness in its place, without allowing it to control all aspects of the family’s life. Multiple Family Discussion Groups gave particular attention to the burden of multiple illnesses occurring in the same family. The Center’s research with these groups focused on low-income families of color.

Rusty Magee Clinic

The Center was named in memory of Rusty Magee, who faced his cancer with courage. He utilized our services with his family in his final months of life.

Family relationships powerfully affect adherence to preventive care and medical treatment. Chronic and/or life-threatening illness disrupts all aspects of family life; including:

  • emotional well-being and mental health
  • level of conflict and anxiety
  • ability to solve problems
  • daily routines and meaningful rituals
  • family finances
  • life cycle transitions

The team provided a range of psychosocial services to families with one or more members with a physical illness. Meeting weekly, the team provides state of the art therapy to couples and families. Our clinic team also developed and published concepts related to family systems and health, and creates training materials.

The team helped families to cope with the burden from our current health care system, including:

  • shorter hospital stays requiring greater medical expertise of family members
  • increasingly complex medical technology
  • break downs in communication between health care providers and family members.


The Center for Families and Health formed partnerships with health care institutions in New York City to facilitate attention to the needs of families, as well as to offer training and consultation to health care professionals.

Among the Center’s affiliations have been those with North General Hospital, serving low income families with diabetes, asthma, chronic pain, cancer and HIV/AIDS; The Family Center, working with families coping with the loss of a parent to cancer or HIV/AIDS; Maimonides Hospital, dealing with couples in which one spouse has cardiac illness; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, offering services to families with head and neck cancer and families with adolescents who are post-cancer treatment; and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital Center, offering  Multiple Family Discussion Group for families with one or more members with either Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes.

Past partnerships included the Family Focused Grief Therapy Research project. This research, a controlled clinical trial examining the efficacy of Family Therapy for families with a member who is dying of cancer, is sponsored by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center with a grant from the National Cancer Institute.


The Center provided training for family therapists wanting to learn specialized work with families dealing with medical illness, as well as training for health professionals, including physicians, nurses and social workers, who want to learn a family systems approach to medical illness. Trainings included a one-semester, weekly course; workshops at the Ackerman Institute; and trainings at agencies and hospitals.

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