Maudsley Is As Maudsley Does

Those who know me professionally are well aware that I am an advocate of the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment and that I use this approach to treat my adolescent patients with eating disorders. What they may not know is that Maudsley principles pervade my treatment philosophy for eating disorder patients of all ages, regardless of the treatment approach I employ with them. For example:

• I always externalize the eating disorder and teach my patients to do the same.
• I firmly believe that patients do not choose eating disorders and that parents do not cause them. I make this point explicitly to patients and their families at the start of treatment and as many times as necessary throughout the course of treatment.
• I explanation the etiology of eating disorders as follows: We don’t know definitively what causes eating disorders, and for the purposes of this treatment, the cause isn’t terribly important right now. The most recent scientific research suggests that eating disorders are biologically-based, genetically-transmitted mental illnesses which are triggered by an energy imbalance (for example, through dieting) and perpetuated by malnutrition, with emotional stress (e.g., anxiety, OCD, depression) as an aggravating factor. I mention all of the common myths about the causes of eating disorders (e.g., the media, fear of growing up, need for control, overbearing parents) and dispute each one of them.
• At the start of treatment, I provide patients with psycho-education about the central role of full nutrition, weight restoration, and cessation of binge/purge behaviors in recovery.
• Whenever possible, I involve family members (parents, siblings, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends) in the patient’s treatment to some extent. In some cases, family involvement may be as simple as providing family members with psycho-education, literature, and internet resources on eating disorders. In other cases, family members may participate in the evaluation or attend some therapy sessions with the patient. Regardless of the patient’s age, I like to empower those who live with her (parents, spouses, significant others) to provide meal support and help stop other symptoms such as excessive exercise, bingeing, and purging.
• I view family members as essential members of the treatment team who can provide nutritional, practical, and emotional support to the patient as she recovers.
• I make physical health (including full nutrition, weight restoration, elimination of purging and other unhealthy behaviors) the most immediate priority in treatment.
• I help patients re-learn how to eat properly on their own once they are physically healthy and psychologically prepared to assume this responsibility.
• I treat patients’ other disorders (e.g., depression, OCD, anxiety) and address their developmental, familial, and interpersonal issues after physical health has been achieved.

In my view, these principles are equally applicable for children, adolescents, college students, and adults. They apply when I am doing individual therapy using a CBT, DBT, ACT, or IPT approach. They apply when I am doing couple’s therapy when one partner has an eating disorder. And, of course, they apply when I am doing Maudsley Family-Based Therapy.

These principles are a central part of my professional identity. I stand behind them when I am giving a lecture, doing a presentation, conversing with colleagues, speaking to potential clients, talking about work with family and friends, or even answering the questions of acquaintances who are interested in what I do.

To date, the Maudsley approach has only been empirically-supported for adolescents with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, preliminary data suggest that Maudsley may be equally effective for pre-adolescent children and young adults. Regardless of what the eventual published data may say about broader applications of Maudsley, I will hold fast to these principles. At least until science or experience convinces me otherwise.

Informed Consent

The American Psychological Association’s ethical guidelines require that psychologists obtain informed consent for treatment from all patients and parents of minor patients. But what does it mean for consent to be truly informed?

In standard practice, informed consent generally amounts to a frazzled patient or harried parent signing a consent form after a perfunctory glance. Patients and parents are often in crisis when they first present for treatment, and signing the form is just one more hoop to jump through before getting into therapy. Most therapists’ consent forms cover business procedures and confidentiality issues. This is important information, but does it amount to truly informed consent?

I don’t think so.

I believe that the APA’s ethical guidelines should be revised to require full disclosure in informed consent for psychological treatment. Specifically, therapists should be required to disclose 1.) The patient’s diagnoses and explanations of these diagnoses, 2.) What factors caused or contributed to the patient’s illness, as evidenced by the most recent empirical research and the clinician’s informed judgment, 3.) What treatment methods are available for treating the patient’s condition, 4.) Which of these methods are evidence-based, 5.) Which method(s) the therapist will use, 6.) Why the therapist has selected these methods, 7.) The anticipated course of treatment and prognosis, based upon recent empirical research, and 8.) Scientifically informed, practical resources (e.g., books, articles, websites) on the patient’s condition and the type of therapy that will be used. For patients under 18, all of the above should be explained to the parents and to the child, using language appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level. Finally, parents should be provided with guidance as to how they can help their child recover. I’m talking about specific recommendations, not just blanket statements like “be supportive.”

In my consent for therapy forms, which patients (and parents of minor patients) read and sign before meeting with me, I specify the types of treatment I use, all of which are evidence-based. After the evaluation, I provide patients(and parents of adolescent patients) with empirical research on their particular disorder, as well as information on the efficacy of various types of treatment and who recommends these treatments (e.g., APA, Society for Adolescent Medicine, etc.). I explain the type of treatment I recommend for them, why I have selected this type of treatment, how it works, and what to expect on the road to recovery. If there is a type of treatment that is likely to be effective for the patient but that I do not offer (e.g., psychiatric medication, residential treatment), I provide them with referrals to these types of treatments and explain why I think they would be beneficial. At this point, the patient has all of the information she needs to make an informed choice about treatment.

Most patients seeking therapy, and most parents seeking therapy for their children, are not aware that there are different types of psychological treatments with varying degrees of efficacy. I think most people outside of the field assume that therapy is therapy and that therapists are pretty much interchangeable, like dentists or surgeons. Many people assume that as long as you like your therapist and feel comfortable with her, that’s all that matters. While the therapeutic relationship is undoubtedly a critical aspect of treatment, there are other factors to consider in selecting a therapist. Often times, people want to see a psychologist with decades of experience. This is an understandable, albeit unreliable, method of seeking good treatment. The older, more experienced therapists were trained decades ago in theories that have since been discarded, in therapeutic methods with no scientific backing. Sometimes they become set in their ways of practicing, clinging to old theories like religious dogma in spite of evidence to the contrary. Granted, many experienced therapists have kept up with recent developments in the field and have educated themselves. Sadly, many have not.

Informed consent in therapy is complicated by the fact that different professionals have vastly different, and often contradictory, views on the causes of various mental disorders and how best to treat them. To make matters worse, the public has access to a tremendous amount of information on mental health issues through the internet, much of which is either unsubstantiated or patently false. Consequently, many patients arrive in our offices with deeply entrenched false beliefs about their illnesses. As professionals, it is our job to set the record straight.

I have had a number of patients come to me seeking therapy for the first time after being unsuccessfully treated for anxiety or depression by their primary care physician. I use the term “treated” very loosely here – their doctor spoke with them for a few minutes and wrote them a prescription for a low dose of antidepressants or sleeping pills, only to follow up with them a year later. They were not informed about evidence-based psychological treatments. They were not informed about behavioral methods of treating insomnia. And of course, they were not informed that their dose of Prozac is far too low to have any therapeutic benefit. Similarly, I have had patients come to me after years of therapy for depression or self-injury who have done endless amounts of exploration into the supposed causes of their supposed issues, without ever learning the skills they need to recover.

Parents of eating disordered children have come to me for Maudsley family-based therapy after months or years of unsuccessful therapy, after multiple hospitalizations and stints in residential treatment. These families were never informed about the Maudsley Method by any of their child’s previous treatment providers. These parents, desperate to help their children, did their own research on the internet late at night, sifting through the mounds of information to try to find the one thing that would save their child’s bright future. I’ve seen patients, who have been through years of eating disorder treatment with other professionals, who have never once been told that they have a biologically-based, genetically-transmitted mental illness which is neither their fault nor their choice.

Parents of eating disordered children have a right to be informed about the Maudsley Method at the time of diagnosis. The research is clear that Maudsley is the most effective treatment for adolescents with a short duration of illness who are still living at home with their families. For various reasons, Maudsley is not the best choice for every patient or family. Nonetheless, families have the right to know it exists and to decide for themselves whether they wish to pursue it. Patients with depression, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders have the right to be informed about evidence-based treatments such as CBT, DBT, and ACT. Many lives, many years of chronic illness, and many dollars spent on ineffective treatments could be saved if patients and parents were fully informed about evidence-based treatment options from the outset. If a patient has cancer, it is her physician’s duty to inform her of the various life-saving treatment options, some of which may be available in that physician’s office or the local hospital, and some of which are only available in the nearest major city. Why should psychology be any different?