I have blogged before about how to choose a good therapist. In this post, I will approach the therapist selection / retention issue from the opposite side – how to spot a bad therapist. Please note that many bad therapists are very good people with good intentions. People do not become therapists for money, fame, or the recognition – most of them genuinely care about people and want to help them. By “bad therapist” I mean “ineffective therapist.”
It seems that there are quite a few ineffective therapists who treat eating disorders (ED’s), and this is particularly dangerous given that EDs have such a high mortality rate and are associated with many medical and psychiatric complications.
I have had the privilege of working with many ED patients and families who have received ineffective or actively harmful treatment in the past. In talking with these patients and families about their prior treatment experiences, I have come to recognize many red flags that are very commonly associated with ineffective or harmful ED treatment.
Red Flags re: Etiology
1.) The professional informs the patient or family that the ED is “not about the food.”
2.) The professional informs the patient or family that the ED “is about control.”
3.) The professional is not knowledgeable about recent science regarding the etiology of EDs.
4.) The professional emphasizes psychosocial “causes” of EDs (e.g., family dynamics, societal pressures, identity issues) while ignoring, discounting, or minimizing the genetic and biological underpinnings.
Red Flags re: Family
1.) The professional blames the parents (either subtly or overtly) for causing or “contributing to the development of” the patient’s ED.
2.) The professional advises the parents: “Don’t be the food police.”
3.) The professional does not keep parents of minor patients (< 18 years) fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment. 4.) The professional views parents with suspicion or keeps them at arm’s length, without reasonable cause. Red Flags re: Treatment 1.) The professional is not knowledgeable about evidence-based treatment for EDs. 2.) The professional cannot, or does not, explain the treatment method she uses and / or the rationale behind it. 3.) The professional recommends or allows individual psychotherapy without ongoing nutritional restoration, weight restoration, and medical monitoring. 4.) The professional is very interested in exploring “underlying issues” in an acutely symptomatic patient. 5.) The professional insists on addressing the patient’s co-morbid conditions without also (either first or simultaneously) addressing the ED symptoms. 6.) The professional has never heard of Maudsley / Family-Based Treatment (FBT), or has heard the term but knows nothing about it.
7.) The professional asserts that Maudsley / FBT “will not work” for this particular patient, without giving a convincing explanation for this assertion.
8.) The professional blames the patient (either subtly or overtly) for having an ED.
9.) The professional advises parents to send their child or adolescent away to a residential treatment center without first trying Maudsley / FBT, unless it is clearly contraindicated.
Red Flags re: Recovery
1.) The professional asserts that the acutely ill patient “has to want to eat” or “has to want to recover.”
2.) The professional emphasizes the adolescent or young adult patient’s need for control and independence as more important than her recovery from ED.
3.) The professional sets or allows a target weight range based on population indices (e.g., BMI of 18.5) or percentiles (e.g., 50th percentile for age/height) without consideration of the individual patient’s build, weight history, or optimal weight.
4.) The professional declares the patient “recovered” based on weight alone, without regard for her behavior or mental state.
5.) The professional asserts that one never recovers from an eating disorder.
This list of red flags may be useful when you are looking for or ruling out a professional or treatment program based on information on their website; it may also be useful in interviewing potential new therapists. If you or your loved one have been in treatment for a while without making progress, you can also use these red flags to help you assess the situation and determine whether to go elsewhere for a second opinion.
My advice? If you see one or two of these red flags in your therapist or treatment program, investigate and proceed with caution. If you see three or more, find a new therapist.