I am not a fan of residential treatment for eating disorders as it exists today. I am not aware of any scientific research suggesting that residential treatment is superior to outpatient treatment, with the exception of marketing materials from residential treatment centers (which have an obvious bias and financial incentive). We do know that hospital admissions and stints in residential treatment are poor prognostic factors – patients who remain at home and recover through outpatient treatment are more likely to recover than those who go through residential care. To be sure, the relationship between residential treatment and prognosis may be correlational rather than causal. Patients who are sent away to residential treatment generally have longer duration of illness, greater severity of illness, more psychiatric comorbidity, and a history of unsuccessful outpatient treatment.
There is one recently published randomized controlled trial of outpatient vs. residential treatment. Results of this study demonstrated that adolescents who were randomly assigned to outpatient treatment fared just as well as those who were randomly assigned to residential treatment. Given that outpatient treatment is less expensive and less disruptive to the adolescent’s life, the authors conclude that outpatient treatment is preferable.
I am a firm believer in evidence-based outpatient treatments which keep family members fully informed and actively involved whenever possible. Patients who receive treatment which prioritizes nutritional rehabilitation, weight restoration, and cessation of restricting/bingeing/purging behaviors as the essential first step, are more likely to achieve full recovery in less time. In an ideal situation, a skilled therapist can utilize the strengths and resources of the family and coach them in understanding eating disorders, refeeding their loved one, and interrupting her eating disorder behaviors. Families can also be coached in how to maintain a home environment which is conducive to recovery while their loved one participates in therapy to acquire healthy coping skills, learn how to prevent relapse, and manage any comorbid conditions. This is how the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment works. At this time, the Maudsley method is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescent anorexia nervosa, and has also been shown to be equally effective in treating adolescent bulimia nervosa. Empirical studies on the use of a modified Maudsley approach in treating young adults with eating disorders have not yet been published. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many young adults respond favorably to a modified Maudsley approach – even those who have been ill for many years and have had numerous stays in inpatient or residential treatment. And, let’s face it: we don’t really have a good alternative treatment for young adults with anorexia nervosa.
The majority of patients who are treated with Maudsley do achieve and maintain full recovery. Simply put, Maudsley works, and there aren’t any great alternatives. Thus, Maudsley should typically be the first-line treatment, especially for adolescents with anorexia nervosa, and should commence immediately following diagnosis. That being said, Maudsley may not be appropriate in a minority of cases. For example, families who are unable to find evidence-based treatment providers near their home, families in which neither parent has the necessary time or energy due to very demanding careers or caring for other small children, families in which parents cannot agree to Maudsley and refuse to compromise or work together, families in which there is abuse or addiction, or families in which one or both parents suffers from a physical or mental illness which impairs their ability to parent their child effectively.
Despite the promise of the Maudsley Method, it is not necessarily effective or appropriate for all patients (this statement, while often cited by critics of Maudsley, is annoying and virtually meaningless because NO form of treatment for any psychological or medical illness is ever appropriate and effective for 100% of patients. This is not a weakness of a particular treatment method; this is just reality). For the aforementioned reasons, there is, and probably always will be, a need for residential treatment for eating disorders.
Residential treatment for eating disorders, as it exists today, has several benefits and several drawbacks. The benefits include:
• Supported nutrition to promote appropriate weight restoration
• Round-the-clock monitoring to prevent patients from engaging in bingeing, purging, restricting, and substance use
• Protection from self-harm and suicide
• Providing the patient with a respite from the stresses of school, work, sports, and everyday life
• Providing the family with a respite from the daily strain of caring for their loved one
The drawbacks to residential treatment, as it exists today, include:
• Prolonged separation from the family and home environment
• Prolonged absence from school, friends, extracurricular activities, and normal routines
• Exposure to other eating disorder patients, which can result in acquisition of new symptoms, solidification of identity as an “eating disorder patient,” and competitiveness with other patients about who is sicker or thinner
• Artificial environment – a “bubble” – which does not translate to real-world living
• Exposure to outdated and unproven theories about the etiology and treatment of eating disorders (e.g., blaming “family dysfunction,” search for “root causes,” exploration of supposed “underlying issues”)
• Failure to plan adequately for a smooth transition home
• Insufficient family involvement (weekly phone sessions and “family weekend” pay lip service to family involvement, but they often play the blame game, focus on presumed family dysfunction, advise parents to “back off” and not be the “food police,” and fail to educate families as to how to help their loved one recover. In essence, many family sessions send all the wrong messages and fail to send the helpful ones).
• Over-diagnosis of and over-medication for supposed comorbid disorders which are largely, if not entirely, the result of malnourishment and / or refeeding
• Attempts to use psychotherapy of any kind on patients who are not able to benefit cognitively or emotionally.
These last two points are particularly striking to me (granted, these problems occur with less-informed outpatient treatment as well). I have had many patients who were diagnosed with and medicated for severe mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or even borderline personality disorder, while they were underweight or re-feeding in residential treatment. In many patients, these symptoms decrease substantially or disappear altogether once the patient has reached and maintained a healthy body weight for a number of months. I have several patients who arrived at my office after years of ineffective treatment, with multiple psychiatric diagnoses, taking multiple medications. After weight restoration and maintenance along with evidence-based psychological interventions, these patients no longer required medication for any psychiatric symptoms and no longer met criteria for ANY mental disorder. Sometimes, less is more.
What many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals fail to understand is that all people who are malnourished or re-feeding, even those without eating disorders, exhibit symptoms that mimic certain mental disorders (see Minnesota Starvation Study). Diagnoses made while a patient is underweight or re-feeding are often inaccurate. Medicating a patient for a presumed mental illness which is actually the direct result of a malnourished and / or refeeding brain is at best ineffective and at worst quite harmful. Obviously, many patients with eating disorders do have genuine comorbid psychiatric issues, and clearly these need to be identified and treated. But even those patients with legitimate comorbidities may find that their other symptoms are more manageable, or require less medication, when their eating disorder is under control.
Nearly all patients in residential treatment for eating disorders are there because they are significantly malnourished or actively engaging in frequent binge/purge behaviors. These are patients with significant (though temporary) brain damage which renders them unable to process emotions, think rationally, perceive other people’s intentions, or think logically about food, weight, or body image. We know that this brain damage is reversible only after months of full nutrition, weight restoration, and abstinence from eating disorder symptoms. I understand the rationale that, since patients are in residential treatment, they should be given every possible type of treatment available from equine therapy to process groups to CBT to psychoanalysis to making pretty necklaces. I understand that the directors of residential treatment centers want to provide patients with every possible tool for recovery. But what if the patients are not yet equipped to use these tools? And what if some of these tools can be harmful? Again, this may be a case of less is more.
In my ideal world, residential treatment would retain the benefits it currently has while eliminating the drawbacks. Here’s how it would work:
• The immediate focus would be on full nutrition, full time so that patients can restore their weight as quickly as is medically safe and can break the binge/purge cycle (if applicable). This would include three meals and three snacks per day, carefully monitored. “Magic plate” would be employed, and patients would be required to eat 100% of their meals and snacks. There would be no “rewards” for eating well or “punishments” for eating too little. Eating disorder patients are punished enough by their illness, so the last thing they need is a punitive external measure. Rather, there would be no alternative other than to consume full nutrition, preferably through food, but otherwise through a supplement or nasogastric tube.
• Patients would be carefully monitored and prevented from hiding food, bingeing, or purging.
• Patients would be monitored for urges to self-injure or commit suicide and kept safe from any possible means of self-harm.
• No new diagnoses would be made and no new medications prescribed.
• No individual therapy, family therapy, or group therapy of any kind would be provided. However, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders would be available daily to provide supportive counseling for patients who request it.
• Patients would spend their days participating in relaxing, rejuvenating activities such as reading, watching movies, playing board games, getting massages, taking nature walks and practicing gentle yoga (when medically appropriate).
• Patients would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and relapse prevention.
• Through phone conferences and/or in-person sessions, family members would be educated about the genetic and neurobiological basis of eating disorders as well as the role of under-nutrition and compulsive exercise in the development and maintenance of these illnesses. They would be provided with scientifically valid information on effective treatments for eating disorders and skills to help their loved one continue on the path to recovery at home.
• Family members would be provided with daily updates on their loved one’s progress, regardless of the patient’s age. Family members would also be encouraged to contact the treatment center at any time with questions or concerns.
• Family members and friends of the patient would be strongly encouraged to call and visit the patient whenever possible.
• A physician would set an accurate target weight range for each patient, taking into account her pediatric growth charts, weight/build history, and genetics. The target range would represent the patients’ ideal, healthiest weight, not some arbitrary minimum BMI. Research shows that the vast majority of adult patients require a BMI of at least 20 in order to achieve complete physical and mental recovery, so that would be a good starting point.
Patients would be discharged from my ideal treatment facility only after the following criteria were met:
• The patient has achieved 100% of her ideal body weight.
• The patient eats 100% of her meals and snacks with little resistance.
• The patient reports a significant decrease in urges to restrict, binge, or purge.
• The patient is not experiencing suicidal ideation or urges to self-harm.
• The patient expresses readiness for discharge and willingness to work towards recovery.
• The family has been well-educated about eating disorders and feels confident to manage their loved one’s symptoms at home.
• The patient and her family members have collaboratively developed a specific, written outpatient treatment plan. This plan includes referrals for evidence-based psychological treatment for the individual patient and her family as well as regular medical monitoring. In addition, the plan contains specific strategies for dealing with the patient’s eating disorder behaviors and for creating a pro-recovery home environment.
Although it exists only in my imagination, I would predict that a residential treatment center such as the one I described would be more effective than most currently existing treatment centers. It would also be much cheaper, since far fewer staff would be required. Granted, patients may have a longer duration of residential treatment than they do now, since the goal is 100% weight restoration, but patients would be less likely to relapse. Since this treatment center would be cheaper anyway, and patients would be less likely to require repeated admissions, the overall cost to the patient’s family and to society would be much lower.