Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, affect as many as 30 million people in the United States, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).1 Despite the prevalence of these mental illnesses, many people with them do not seek treatment at a dedicated eating disorder treatment center.
Residential treatment centers offer current treatment options for eating disorders. Although many people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are successfully treated on an outpatient basis, for others, residential treatment is essential. Inpatient care is particularly important for patients with long-standing disorders, those at risk of self-harm, or those with substance abuse problems in addition to their eating disorder. (2)
In contrast, standard outpatient therapy is effective for people who require less supervision, though any treatment should be overseen by doctors and therapists specially trained to treat eating disorders.
Self-Harm and Substance Abuse
Two groups of patients with eating disorders are at particular risk and are therefore most strongly advised to pursue residential treatment. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts sometimes accompany eating disorders, and if you’ve experienced either, seek help immediately by calling emergency services, your therapist, or a residential treatment center. Substance abuse and addiction require specialized care, as does self-harm, and many residential facilities offer expertise in these types of treatment.
Behavioral Therapy and Peer Support
The foundations of treatment for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa consist of behavioral therapy that usually includes some form of peer support, which residential treatment facilities focus on. Peer support techniques involve meeting with a group of people who also have the same or a similar disorder to learn coping techniques, provide encouragement, and help process the treatment; these groups are often a core part of residential treatment communities. Residential facilities also incorporate individual and family behavioral therapy provided by licensed professional counselors to work through the emotional and psychological issues underlying the eating disorder.
Doctors often prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to help patients suffering from eating disorders. For people with bulimia, these medications help reduce the urge to binge and purge by addressing potential triggers. Other medications are sometimes a part of treatment regimes, and at residential facilities, these medications are prescribed and monitored by staff physicians and nurses. Additional pharmaceutical treatments are also sometimes necessary for people who have other addictions or disorders related to their eating disorder. In general, medications are considered a supplement to therapy rather than a first course of treatment for eating disorders.
The Importance of Nutrition
Another crucial aspect of treatment for eating disorders is nutrition. Residential facilities carefully coordinate the nutrition they provide to help make up for physical deficits created by patients’ disorders. They also carefully select meal plans to help avoid exacerbating patients’ disorders or prompting relapse. Nutrition programs are among the biggest advantages of residential treatment over outpatient therapy, since residential staff members are able to manage patient nutrition much more carefully than a private therapist who only sees the patient a few times a week.
Length of Rehab
The length of treatment for eating disorders varies greatly depending on the severity of the case and other relevant factors. Residential treatment programs are generally conducted over a matter of months or even a year. Outpatient programs may last around the same time or longer since patients may still continue to attend school or go to work in these treatment settings.
Often, it takes some time for patients and caregivers to arrive at a personalized program of treatment that is most effective for them. However, some patients make faster progress if their eating disorder responds more quickly to treatment.
Treatment centers specializing in eating disorders are not hard to find, and many general rehabilitation programs offer programs for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, in addition to other treatments. This gives anyone with an eating disorder a wide variety of options when choosing a treatment center.
Many people prefer to select rehab programs far from their homes to more effectively disrupt harmful routines.
Many people prefer to select rehab programs far from their homes to more effectively disrupt harmful routines, although this is not crucial for successful treatment.
Others, however, find it more comforting and financially reasonable to select a treatment center near home.
How to Pay for It
Eating disorder treatment is not a short process for most people, so residential treatment tends to be costly. It is important to give any treatment pursued some time to evaluate whether it is effective or not—there are no quick rehab options. Also, since many patients go through other programs of treatment both before and after residential treatment, their financial resources may be few. Anyone considering a residential course of treatment needs to carefully consider payment options, beginning by consulting their insurance providers and financial counselors.
Relapse from an Eating Disorder
Relapse is a frequent concern for those who are in recovery from an eating disorder, as well as for their loved ones. Residential treatment facilities provide guidance about dealing with the temptation to relapse, and therapists teach patients coping and self-help strategies through months of practice. However, it is important for patients and their families to remain aware of the possibility that relapse may still happen.
Further counseling and support group attendance are often merited after a residential treatment program, with many residential programs only releasing their patients with an understanding that such a course of treatment follows the residential stay. Although eating disorders can be challenging, help is available and recovery is possible through residential and outpatient plans.
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2018). Eating Disorder Statistics.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Eating Disorders: About More than Food.