Eating Disorders: Findings About Treatment and What You Can Do

Eating disorders, or the mental disorders that are defined by abnormal eating habits that negatively affect a person’s physical or mental health, affect a relatively low amount of men and women in America, but the effects they have on the lives of those people and their loved ones are deep and far-reaching. Studies have shown that people suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or other such disorders tend to also have anxiety, mood, and substance abuse disorders, and a much higher chance of other disorders and even death than the general population. Given that, one would assume that anyone suffering in this way would would aggressively and consistently seek treatment. But a study done by BYU School of Family Life professor Russell Crane found that only a small amount of sufferers utilize treatment, and when they do, they have very different experiences in terms of cost, type, and length of treatment. Ultimately, his study, published in Eating Disorders: the Journal of Treatment and Prevention, showed that, for whatever reason, people with eating disorders tend not to get the treatment they need to resolve their problem.

The Study

The younger a patient is, the more expensive their treatment was, for instance, except for patients with bulimia nervosa who were between the ages of 15 and 24. They had the least costly treatment. More importantly, though, his analysis of 5,445 patient records showed that the average length of treatment for sufferers of all ages was significantly shorter than what clinicians recommend. “Across all diagnoses and ages, average treatment length ranged from 3.86 to 6.73 sessions,” he said, as opposed to the recommended 18 to 40 sessions. Research does not yet explain why this is so, but Crane advised clinicians and researchers to explore how to deliver effective treatment in shorter doses if clients do not attend treatment long enough to receive the recommended length of treatment. His study also found that a majority of adolescents with eating disorders tended to receive individual therapy instead of family therapy, despite family therapy’s validated effectiveness. “Clinicians should be sure to discuss its importance with families of adolescents, and to incorporate it into treatment when possible,” he said.

Individuals under age 15 had the highest return to care rates, meaning they needed a second or further group of sessions. Conversely, individuals aged 45 and higher had the lowest return to care rates.” Dr. Crane cites a possible explanation for this: “It may be that older individuals require shorter stays of treatment or fewer episodes of care. Alternatively, since older individuals are more likely to refuse treatment, it may be that they refuse to return to treatment even if another episode of care could be helpful. The youngest individuals may be under more family pressure to receive treatment, and may be more responsive to this pressure.” It may behoove the family members or friends of those sufferers to learn about the benefits of ongoing family therapy treatment, not only for the sufferer but also because of the fact that, as Barnes says: It’s really important that those closest to the individual with an eating disorder get involved in treatment.”

Doing so may be difficult though. In a 2015 Connections article, Dr. Lauren Barnes said: “navigating a relationship with someone experiencing mental illness can be tricky. The surefire way to help such people is by offering educated support and unconditional love. Rather than telling [sufferers] to ‘just eat,’ loved ones should seek understanding. Do your own research on what the person is going through. Call up a clinician, a therapist, a doctor. Get some background information. Look up good books.” This research will foster empathy and make the supporting friend, parent, or sibling much more accessible to the struggling party.

What can YOU do?

friends-by-lakeDr. Barnes offered these other pointers for those who know someone with an eating disorder. In addition to facilitating treatment, Dr. Barnes recommends “being there and listening,” which can make a world of difference in the life of someone struggling with an eating disorder, abuse, or any of a variety of mental and emotional illnesses. But, she says, “rather than blaming the victim, a loved one could say something like, ‘I can’t believe something like that happened to you. I’m going to fight for you.’”

That being said, Barnes also cautions family members and friends to be aware of their own health and not overtax themselves in the care of someone with an eating disorder. There is such a thing as “caretaker burnout.” “It can be exhausting physically, emotionally and mentally to care for a loved one who is struggling with an illness and watching them suffer.” She suggests finding support for yourself if you become overwhelmed caring for someone with a mental illness.


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