Eating Disorders: Treatment

Updated October 26, 2021 | Catherine McNiff

A team approach offers best chance of success

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It's important for eating disordered patients to understand that they need to seek help and cannot overcome anorexia or bulimia on their own. Left untreated, anorexia can be a deadly disease. In fact, it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Once patients acknowledge they suffer from an eating disorder or have been diagnosed with one, the next step is to determine the best treatment plan. Treatment options vary based on the severity of the illness and the physical health of the patient. Treatment plans are very individualized; thereâÂÂs no âone size fits allâ treatment course. ItâÂÂs important to seek treatment early, which increases the chances for a full recovery and reduces the risk of serious long-term health problems.

A key to success in overcoming these illnesses is finding a qualified outpatient treatment team that patients trust and are comfortable working with. Outpatient treatment teams usually consist of a medical doctor, a psychologist or therapist, a nutritionist, and a psychiatrist. Members of the team will work together to devise the best program for the patient and will communicate and collaborate throughout the treatment to coordinate care. The patientâÂÂs health and the severity of the ED will determine how often he or she will see each practitioner.

Many therapists appear in health-care provider directories as eating disorder specialists, but because the illnesses are so complicated and difficult to treat, itâÂÂs important to make sure your prospective clinician has been trained to treat eating disorders and has experience working with ED patients.

Outpatient Care

If a patient is not improving with his or her outpatient program and his or her health becomes compromised, then a higher level of care will be necessary. The first step is typically admission to an inpatient program, usually in a hospital setting. ItâÂÂs a short-term program to re-feed the patient and bring him or her back up to a safe weight and health.

Inpatient Care

This level of care is necessary when a patient is medically and psychiatricly unstable. Clinical tests may show depressed vital signs, abnormal lab results, and problems stemming from coexisting medical problems. Psychiatric instability is marked by swiftly deteriorating symptoms and suicidal tendencies. These findings indicate acute health risks to the patient.

Residential Care

When a patient is medically stable but still requires intensive psychiatric intervention that lies beyond the scope of partial hospital or outpatient treatment, then he or she is a candidate for residential care. A residential care treatment facility offers the patient 24-hour access to all aspects of healthcare.

Partial Hospital Care

Partial hospital care is the best option when a patient is medically stable but suffers from impaired physical and social functioning. Behaviors include daily binge eating, purging, fasting or very limited food intake, or other pathogenic weight control techniques. This person requires daily physiological and mental evaluation.

Long Term Care

Once an eating disordered patient is medically and psychiatricaly stable, treatment shifts to long-term management of care. There is no timeline for recovery. As long as he or she continues to make progress, self-management and outpatient care may continue indefinitely. The goals of eating disorder treatment are to achieve medical stability, stop destructive behavior, and address and resolve coexisting mental health issues and triggers. Research into eating disorder treatment is ongoing and new therapies and treatment modalities are being developed and tested every day. With all the treatment options available, there is no need for anyone dealing with an eating disorder to suffer alone.

Source: NEDA, especially Parent Toolkit
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