Summary of Treatment Outcomes

My blog posts from June through November 2013 have been devoted to describing my patients’ treatment outcomes. I’ve been advised that my recent posts have been too data-heavy and too detailed, but hey – that’s how I roll. I like to be thorough, meticulous, and transparent. Prospective patients and their families deserve to have access to this information. But for those who prefer brevity, I’ve summarized my treatment outcomes below. Click on the headings in bold for details.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa

Fifty-seven percent of my former patients with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) completed treatment. Of the “treatment completers,” 94% reached full remission and the remaining 6% reached physical remission. Patients required, on average, 28 sessions over the course of 17 months to complete treatment.

Forty-three percent of my former patients with AN did not complete treatment with me. Of the “treatment non-completers,” 23% were referred to other treatment settings which could better meet their needs; 15% moved to other geographic locations during treatment and thus were referred for treatment near their new homes; and the remaining 62% dropped out of treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

Thirty-three percent of my former patients with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) completed treatment. One-hundred percent of those who completed treatment reached full remission. On average, patients took 15 sessions over the course of 10 months to complete treatment. Amongst patients with BN, 44% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely. For patients with EDNOS, 17% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders

Twenty-nine percent of patients my former patients with primary diagnoses of mood disorders completed treatment. Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% achieved full remission and the remaining 17% made significant progress. On average, patients took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Thirty-eight percent of mood disorder patients quit treatment prematurely, 24% were referred to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred for treatment near their new homes.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders

All of my former patients with primary diagnoses of anxiety disorders who attended more than two sessions experienced substantial improvement in anxiety symptoms as well as significant improvement in functioning, even if they did not complete a full course of treatment. Patients with anxiety disorders attended an average of 10 sessions over the course of 6 months.

Amongst those who completed a full course of treatment, 75% achieved full remission and the remaining 25% made significant progress.

A Comparison of Treatment Outcomes: AN, BN, and EDNOS

My previous posts described treatment outcomes and correlates of my patients with various eating disorder diagnoses, including Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Some findings were similar across diagnostic groups:

• The vast majority of patients with any diagnosis who completed treatment achieved full remission.

• The attrition rate, overall, was high.

Family-Based Treatment (FBT) was associated with treatment retention, meaning that patients who participated in FBT were less likely to discontinue treatment prematurely than those receiving individual therapy.

• Patients who paid a reduced rate for services were much less likely to complete treatment and much less likely to achieve remission than those who paid full rate.

• Hospitalization during treatment with me was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome, regardless of diagnosis.

• History of intensive eating disorder treatment (e.g., residential treatment, day treatment) was related to treatment non-completion and poorer outcome for patients across diagnoses.

Quite surprisingly, the differences among the diagnostic groups outnumbered the similarities:

• Patients with AN who completed treatment attended more sessions, over a longer period of time, than patients with BN or EDNOS. Completing treatment for AN involved an average of 28 sessions over 17 months, whereas completing treatment for BN or EDNOS involved an average of 15 sessions over 10 months.

• Type of treatment had a significant impact on outcome for patients with AN but not for patients with BN or EDNOS. All AN patients who achieved remission did so through FBT. However, patients with BN and EDNOS achieved remission through various means, including individual therapy with no family involvement, individual therapy with family involvement, and FBT.

• Younger age at intake and shorter duration of illness predicted treatment completion and remission for patients with AN. However, neither age nor duration of illness affected treatment outcome for patients with BN or EDNOS.

• All “treatment non-completers” with AN (those who quit prematurely, moved away, or were referred to other treatment settings) discontinued treatment within the first six months. In contrast, a number of “treatment non-completers” with BN or EDNOS remained in treatment for more than a year.

• Among patients with AN, those who completed treatment attended significantly more sessions than those who did not (28 sessions vs. 8 sessions) and remained in treatment for a much longer time than those who did not (17 months vs. 3 months). In contrast, for patients with BN and EDNOS, treatment completers and non-completers both remained in treatment for an average of 10 months, and treatment non-completers actually averaged more sessions than treatment completers (20 sessions vs. 15 sessions). Thus, it appears that for BN and ENDOS, treatment completers did not remain in treatment longer, but rather reached remission more quickly.

• Caucasians with AN were slightly more likely than Hispanics with AN to complete treatment and achieve remission. In contrast, Hispanics with BN or EDNOS were significantly more likely than Caucasians with these diagnoses to complete treatment and achieve remission.

• The presence of a comborbid disorder was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome for patients with AN. However, the presence of a comorbid disorder was a significant predictor of treatment dropout and poorer outcome for patients with BN and EDNOS.

• History of hospitalization for an eating disorder or related psychiatric issue was related to poorer outcome for patients with BN and EDNOS, but not for patients with AN.

• Taking psychotropic medication during treatment was related to treatment completion and positive outcome for patients with AN but not for patients with BN or EDNOS.

Please bear in mind that these findings are specific to my practice and my patients, and are not intended to be generalized to other treatment settings or other patients.

Correlates of Treatment Outcome for Patients with BN & EDNOS

My previous post described the treatment outcomes of my 21 former patients with diagnoses of Bulimia Nervosa (BN) or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Treatment was very successful for these patients, with 100% of those who completed treatment (n = 7) achieving full remission. However, the attrition rate was very high, with two-thirds of patients (n = 14) discontinuing treatment prematurely for various reasons. Nineteen percent (n = 4) of patients were referred to other providers or treatment settings because I was unable to meet their needs, 5% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area, and 43% (n = 9) quit before finishing treatment.

Given that treatment completion always led to full remission, attrition appears to be the biggest challenge for this population. Therefore, my post will focus on the differences between those who completed treatment and therefore achieved full remission (aka “treatment completers”) versus those who did not (“treatment non-completers”).

Neither age at intake nor duration of illness before intake predicted treatment outcome. Both treatment completers and treatment non-completers averaged approximately 19 years old at intake, with an average duration of illness of 4.5 years.

Patients who completed treatment and achieved full remission did so through a variety of treatment modalities: 43% (n = 3) received individual therapy with no family involvement, 29% (n = 2) received Family-Based Treatment (FBT), 14% (n = 1) received individual therapy with a high level of family involvement, and 14% (n = 1) received individual therapy with moderate family involvement.

Patients receiving FBT (n = 7) were significantly less likely than those receiving individual therapy to quit treatment prematurely. Only 14% of patients receiving FBT (n = 1) quit treatment prematurely. I referred 43% of them (n = 3) to other treatment settings due to my inability to help them progress in treatment. Twenty-nine percent (n = 2) completed treatment with me and 14% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area and continued her treatment there.

Of the 14 patients who received individual therapy, 57% (n = 8) quit treatment prematurely. The remainder of patients either completed treatment and achieved full remission (36%; n = 5) or were referred to other treatment settings (7%; n = 1).

Interestingly, treatment completers did not differ from treatment non-completers on duration of treatment or on number of sessions attended. For treatment completers, duration of treatment ranged from 1-38 months, with an average duration of 10 months. For treatment non-completers, duration of treatment ranged from 1-28 months, with an average duration of 10 months. Treatment completers attended an average of 15 sessions, while treatment non-completers attended an average of 20 sessions. Thus, it appears that treatment completers did not necessarily remain in treatment longer, but rather reached remission more quickly. Anecdotally, I recall that a number of patients who quit treatment prematurely actually did quite well in their first 6-9 months of treatment and nearly reached remission, but then began to regress, got discouraged, and quit.

Rates of treatment completion and treatment outcome differed based on diagnosis. Amongst patients with BN, 22% (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission, while 44% (n = 4) made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment. For patients with EDNOS, 42% completed treatment and achieved full remission, while 17% (n = 2) made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment.

Prior history of untreated Anorexia Nervosa (AN) was associated with treatment dropout and poor outcome. Only 18% (n = 2) of those with a prior history of AN completed their BN/EDNOS treatment with me, and both of those patients had been successfully treated for AN years before. None of the patients with a prior history of untreated AN completed their treatment with me.

Patients with a co-morbid disorder were much less likely to complete treatment. While two-thirds of patients in this sample (n = 14) had a co-morbid disorder, only 29% of them (n = 4) completed treatment and achieved remission.

Taking psychotropic medication during treatment was not related to treatment completion. Thirty-six percent of those who took medication during treatment (n = 4) completed treatment and achieved full remission, compared with 30% (n = 3) of those who did not take medication during treatment.

This sample of patients was 71% Caucasian (n = 15), 24% Hispanic (n = 5), and 5% multi-racial (n = 1). Hispanic patients were much more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission than Caucasian patients. Eighty percent (n = 4) of Hispanic patients in this sample completed treatment and achieved remission, compared with only 20% (n = 3) of Caucasian patients.

I work on a sliding fee scale, offering reduced rates based on patient’s ability to pay. Those who paid my full rate were more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission compared with those who paid a reduced rate. Forty-six percent of those who paid my full rate completed treatment (n = 6), compared with 25% of those who paid a reduced rate (n = 2).

Individuals with a history of intensive eating disorder treatment were less likely to complete treatment than those without such a history. Amongst treatment non-completers, 50% (n = 7) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or a related psychiatric issue, 21% (n = 3) had a history of residential treatment, and 21% had been in partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient programs. Amongst treatment completers, 29% (n = 2) had a prior history of hospitalization, 14% (n = 1) had a history of residential treatment, and none had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment. The need for hospitalization during treatment with me was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome.

In sum, the only variables that were related to treatment completion and remission were diagnosis of EDNOS and payment of my full fee for services. The following variables were associated with treatment non-completion: presence of a comorbid diagnosis, history of untreated AN, and prior history of intensive eating disorder treatment. Surprisingly, neither age at intake, duration of illness before intake, type of treatment received, number of sessions attended, duration of treatment, nor need for hospitalization during treatment were related to treatment completion.

These findings are specific to my practice and my patients, and are not intended to be generalized to other clinicians or other populations.

My next post will explore similarities and differences in treatment outcome among patients with AN, BN, and EDNOS.

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa & EDNOS

Since I opened my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 10 patients with a diagnosis of Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and 16 patients with a diagnosis of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). All patients with a diagnosis of BN or EDNOS who attended an evaluation and at least one treatment session with me, and who are no longer in treatment with me, were included in this sample. Patients I evaluated who did not attend any treatment sessions with me were not included in this sample. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample either. Thus, the sample I will be describing includes a total of 21 patients: 12 with EDNOS and 9 with BN.

As you continue to read, bear in mind that these results are specific to my practice and my patients. These data should not be generalized to other clinicians or other patients.

All patients in this sample were female. Age at intake ranged from 14 – 28, with an average age of 19. Two thirds of the patients (n = 14) had a comorbid disorder, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder. Sixty-two percent of patients (n = 13) paid my full rate for services, while 38% (n = 8) paid a reduced rate.

For the purpose of calculating duration of illness, the onset of illness was defined as the period of time in which the patient began engaging in behavioral symptoms of eating disorders (e.g., restricting, bingeing, compulsive exercise, purging) as reported by the patient and/or parents. This is an important point to clarify, as symptoms of the illness typically begin long before a diagnosis is made. Length of illness before intake varied considerably, ranging from 6 months to 15 years, with an average of 4.5 years.

Over half of the patients in this sample (n = 11) had a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some of them had been diagnosed with and treated for AN, while others met criteria for AN at one point but were not treated until their illness morphed into BN or EDNOS.

The patients in this sample with EDNOS (n = 12) presented with a range of different symptoms. Half of the patients (n = 6) struggled with some combination of restricting, bingeing, and purging. One quarter of patients (n = 3) presented primarily with binge eating. Seventeen percent (n = 2) had Type I diabetes and withheld insulin (known as “diabulimia”). Eight percent (n = 1) presented with body image distress associated with a history of AN.

Ninety percent of these patients (n = 19) had a history of some type of psychological treatment prior to meeting with me. The majority had been in individual therapy for their eating disorder at some point. Forty-three percent of the sample (n = 9) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or for a related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me. Nineteen percent (n = 4) had a history of residential eating disorders treatment and 24% (n = 5) had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment.

One-third of the patients in this sample (n = 7) were treated with Family-Based Treatment (FBT). The remaining two-thirds (n = 14) were treated with individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), with varying degrees of family involvement. Of the individual therapy patients, 21% (n = 3) had a high level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in part of each session, shared information and impressions frequently, was kept apprised of weekly goals and progress, and maintained regular phone and email contact with me. Twenty-nine percent of individual therapy patients (n = 4) had a moderate level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in some sessions and had occasional phone and email contact with me. Seven percent of individual therapy patients (n = 1) had a low level of family involvement, meaning that a family member attended one or two sessions, and 43% of individual therapy patients (n = 6) had no family involvement whatsoever.

Parents were the most common family members involved in the patient’s treatment. However, some patients had boyfriends, husbands, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles involved depending on their living situation and individual circumstances. Whenever family members were involved with treatment, the focus was on providing them with psycho-education about eating disorders and enlisting them as sources of practical and emotional support for the patient at home. Family members were coached in providing meal support and in assisting their loved one in refraining from eating disorder behaviors such as bingeing and purging.

For patients who received individual therapy, my approach was primarily cognitive-behavioral (CBT). In addition, many patients were taught Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills such as distress tolerance and emotion regulation, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles such as thought defusion and values-based living.

Patients in this sample attended between 2 and 54 sessions, with an average of 18 sessions. Duration of treatment with me ranged from 1 month to 38 months, with a mean of duration of 10 months. Slightly more than half of the patients (n = 11) took psychotropic medication while in treatment with me. Three patients had to be hospitalized over the course of their treatment with me.

All patients were assigned an end-of-treatment status describing how they had progressed as of their final session with me. Outcomes were defined as follows:

1. Patient must meet ALL of the following criteria to be classified as in full remission:
a.) Patient gets regular menstrual periods.
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work.
c.) Patient is completely abstinent from eating disorder behaviors, including restricting, binge/purge behaviors, laxatives, and diet pills.
d.) Patient eats regular, balanced meals most of the time or always, as reported by patient and parent (when applicable)
e.) No more than mild preoccupation with food, weight, body image, or fear of weight gain

2. Patient is classified as in physical remission if she meets criteria a, b, c, and d under full remission, but does not meet criteria e under full remission. Essentially, a patient in physical remission is physically well and free of eating disorder behaviors, but continues to be very distressed with her body image and/or preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight.

3. Patient is classified as having made significant progress if:
a.) Patient has made significant improvement in dietary habits (e.g., eats regular, balanced meals and snacks) as reported by patient and parents (when applicable)
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work
c.) Frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) has been reduced to once per week or less.

4. Patient is classified as having made some progress if:
a.) Patient has improved dietary habits somewhat since intake, but needs more improvement
b.) Patient has reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) since intake, but still engages in these behaviors more than once per week.

5. Patient is classified as having made no progress if she has not improved dietary habits and/or has not reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors.

6. Patient is classified as regressed if she meets ANY of the following criteria:
a.) Dietary intake has declined since intake (e.g., more skipped meals, less variety, less nutritional balance)
b.) Frequency of binge/purge behaviors has increased since intake
c.) Patient has become medically unstable

Thirty-three percent of patients (n = 7) completed treatment, 43% (n = 9) quit treatment prematurely, 19% (n = 4) were referred to other providers or treatment settings because I was unable to meet their needs, and 5% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area during treatment.

One-hundred percent of the patients who completed treatment (n = 7) reached full remission. For those who completed treatment, known henceforth as “treatment completers,” duration of treatment ranged from one month to 38 months, with an average duration of 10 months. Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 3 – 45, with an average of 15 sessions. In other words, the typical patient with BN or EDNOS who completed treatment achieved full remission in 15 sessions over the course of 10 months.

Unfortunately, the attrition rate was very high, so these treatment completers comprised only one-third of the full sample. Of the 14 patients who discontinued prematurely, 43% (n = 6) made significant progress, another 43% (n = 6) made some progress, 7% (n = 1) made no progress, and 7% regressed (n = 1).

My next post will involve a detailed examination of the differences between patients who completed treatment and reached full remission versus those who discontinued treatment prematurely and did not reach full remission.

Book Review: Food to Eat

There are a number of books that I recommend to the parents of every eating disorder patient I see. When it comes to books for eating disorder sufferers themselves, however, I am much more cautious. Many of the books that are directed at sufferers, while well-intentioned, can be triggering for some patients.

Now all of that has changed. I have finally found a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend to any adult eating disorder patient at any stage of recovery: Food to Eat. I have never read anything quite like this before. Food to Eat, authored by dietician Lori Lieberman and recovering eating disorder patient Cate Sangster, combines practical nutritional advice with quick, easy-to-prepare recipes. The most unique part of Food to Eat is that the pages of recipes and nutritional advice are peppered with dialogue between Lori and Cate. A virtual cognitive restructuring exercise, this dialogue counteracts common eating disorder thoughts with empathic, scientifically-grounded information about nutrition and behavior change.

Food to Eat can be particularly helpful for young adults with eating disorder histories who are transitioning into independent living situations which require them to prepare their own food for the first time. In addition, I would recommend Food to Eat for an adult of any age who is pursuing recovery and wants to develop a certain level of comfort in preparing and eating a variety of foods. Finally, I would recommend Food to Eat for caregivers of eating disorder patients who are responsible for preparing and serving food to the patient, as this book provides unique insight into what the patient is likely thinking when a given recipe is presented.

Full nutrition is the most crucial ingredient of eating disorder recovery. Food to Eat provides a recipe for success in overcoming the cognitive as well as nutritional challenges of eating disorders.

Not So Fast: Making Major Life Changes After an Eating Disorder

When a loved one is recovering from an eating disorder, there is pressure from many sources to jump back into “normal life” as quickly as possible. Insurance companies stop paying for treatment as soon as it’s no longer medically necessary. Friends and family members can’t comprehend why she can’t return to college/soccer /summer camp by now because she “looks great.” The patient herself is tired of being supervised and worried about and carted to so many doctors’ appointments. Everyone seems to long for some sense of normalcy.

Like many psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders are often characterized by periods of exacerbation and periods of remission – a general waxing and waning of symptoms at various times. Symptoms may or may not be present at any point in time, but the predisposition is life-long. Stress of any kind has the potential to trigger a setback or a relapse.

We all have stress in our lives. Some stress is unavoidable, some foreseeable, some self-imposed. We can’t really predict or control certain major life stressors, such as natural disasters, car accidents, or the death of a family member. But we can control some of life’s stress – we can decide whether and when to make certain major life changes.

Keep in mind that significant life changes – even joyful ones – almost always involve stress, and those with eating disorders or other psychiatric illnesses are more prone to suffering the negative effects of stress than the average person. Therefore, I recommend that my patients who are recovering from an eating disorder have at least twelve months in full remission prior to embarking on a major life change, such as going away to college, living independently, moving to a new city, getting married, or getting pregnant.

What exactly does full remission entail? Well, it depends who you ask. One of the worst definitions of full remission I have ever heard is BMI of 18.5. Don’t even get me started on that one.

My definition of full remission from an eating disorder is comprehensive, involving physical, behavioral, social, and psychological parameters:
• Maintenance of 100% of ideal body weight
• Start or resumption of regular menstrual periods (in post-pubertal females)
• Stable vital signs and blood work
• Complete absence of binge eating and purging behaviors
• Complete absence of excessive, obligatory, or compulsive exercise
• Ability to tolerate a wide variety of foods and eating situations (restaurants, parties, picnics) with minimal anxiety
• Following a regular eating pattern of three meals and 1-3 snacks per day
• Ability to eat independently, at an age-appropriate level, while maintaining ideal body weight
• No more than mild body dysmorphia or body image preoccupation
• Return of normal (pre-illness) personality
• Regular engagement in age-appropriate activities (school, work, church, clubs, lessons)

So, if a patient plans to embark on a major life change, I strongly recommend that she meets all of the above criteria, consistently, for a minimum of 12-months before doing so.

You may ask, why wait 12 months? Why not just follow your dreams and start law school/tie the knot/have a baby as soon as the eating disorder is in remission? Here’s why:
• Because it takes at least 12 months for the brain to heal from the effects of starvation
• Because a patient’s vulnerability to relapse is greatest during the first 12 months
• Because it takes months to build new neural pathways, break free from engrained patterns of thinking, and establish healthy habits
• Because excess stress impairs ability to establish and maintain healthy habits
• Because maintaining remission is extremely difficult at first, but becomes easier as time passes
• Because certain life changes, such as getting married or having a child, involve the fate of another person whose life would be adversely affected by a recurrence of symptoms
• Because achieving remission was the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and you’ll do whatever you can to avoid having to go through that whole process again

With so many uncontrollable factors in life, why choose to add more stress so soon after a life-threatening illness?

In my opinion, it’s just not worth it.

Red Flags: How to Spot Ineffective Eating Disorder Treatment

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.

Leaving the Nest: 10 Tips for Parents

It’s back to school time! A new crop of 18-year-olds are leaving home to begin pseudo-independent lives in college. This is the time of year when my inbox is flooded with emails from other clinicians who are using professional list-serves to assemble treatment teams for their patients who are going off to universities in other cities or states.

“Looking for psychologist and psychiatrist in Atlanta for student entering freshman year at Emory. Bipolar disorder diagnosed in February 2011; has been stable on new meds since suicide attempt in June. Patient is very insightful but needs close monitoring.”

“Need treatment team in Boston for incoming freshman at Boston University with 4 year history of bulimia and major depression. Weight is normal but patient engages in binge/purge symptoms 3-4 times per week. Patient has delightful personality but is very entrenched in ED symptoms.”

“20-year-old patient with anorexia nervosa, social anxiety, and OCD just released from our day treatment program needs multidisciplinary treatment team in Chicago as she returns for her junior year at Northwestern University. Patient was discharged at 90% of ideal body weight and is compliant with meal plan. Needs nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and internist familiar with EDs.”

“23-year-old patient with major depression and alcoholism is entering graduate school at UMass Amherst and needs treatment team. Has 2 months sobriety.”

As I read vignettes such as these, I can’t help but wonder whether it is in the best interest of these vulnerable young people to be away at college. Adjectives like “compliant” and “insightful” and “delightful” seem to be inserted to justify the decision to send the patient away to school and/or to entice clinicians to take on these challenging cases. Qualifiers like “2 months sober” and “90% of ideal body weight” do nothing to quell my apprehension. Frankly, they frighten me more.

Let me be frank: a psychiatric diagnosis is a game changer. Any artificial deadlines, such as an 18th birthday or the start of the school year, are irrelevant. Psychiatric disorders are serious, potentially disabling (think major depression, which is a leading cause of lost productivity in the workplace), even deadly (think anorexia nervosa, which carries a 20% mortality rate). Individuals with psychiatric diagnoses can and do recover and go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives, but this requires prompt, effective treatment and a supportive, low-stress environment for a sustained period of time.

The transition to college presents numerous challenges to even the healthiest and most well-adjusted young people: leaving their hometown, family, and friends; living independently in a different city or state; adjusting to dorm life; navigating new peer relationships and social pressures; managing one’s time and money; choosing a career path and taking academically rigorous courses; assuming full responsibility for nutritional intake, sleep schedule, physical activity, and medical care.

Let’s face it: the typical college lifestyle does not promote physical or mental health. Late nights spent studying or partying, daytime napping, chronic sleep deprivation, erratic eating habits consisting mostly of processed snacks and caffeinated beverages in lieu of balanced meals. Most college students drink alcohol socially, and many drink to excess multiple times a week. Widespread use of illicit drugs as well as rampant abuse of black market prescription drugs as study aids (e.g. Adderall) or sleep aids (e.g., Xanax) is a mainstay of university life. Casual sex with multiple partners, often unprotected and usually under the influence of alcohol, is the norm on most campuses.

Navigating these challenges successfully requires a certain level of mental and emotional stability. Maintaining good self-care in an environment where virtually everyone else practices unhealthy habits requires a maturity and strength of character that is beyond the reach of most 18, 19, and 20 year olds.

I have treated patients before, during, and after college, and have counseled their parents throughout this process. I worked at three different university counseling centers during my doctoral training. During that time I worked with dozens of students struggling with psychiatric illnesses and gained an intimate understanding of what universities do, and don’t do, to support students with mental health problems.

Now, as a psychologist in private practice near two large universities, I treat a number of college students as well as high-school students who hope to go away to college in the near future. I also have a few patients who had attempted to go away to college in the past, but experienced a worsening of symptoms, a full-blown relapse, or in some cases life-threatening complications which rendered them unable to live independently. These are young people who have returned home to the safety of their families and are now going through treatment to repair the damage with hopes of living independently in the future.

I have developed the following professional recommendations for parents of young people with psychiatric illnesses based on these clinical experiences as well as the latest scientific research:

1.) If your child is a junior or senior in high school and hopes to go away to college in the future, begin working with her and her treatment team now to establish criteria to assess her readiness for going away to college. I recommend collaboratively establishing a written plan which includes specific, measurable criteria which the child must meet before she is permitted to leave home.

2.) If your child has had life-threatening symptoms (suicide attempt, drug/alcohol abuse, eating disorder), ensure that her condition is in full remission for at least 6 months prior to letting her go away to college. For example:
– A child with bipolar disorder should have at least 6 months of mood stability without any manic or major depressive episodes.
– A child who has attempted suicide should have a minimum of 6 months without any suicidal behaviors, gestures, or urges.
– A child with a substance abuse problem should have at least 6 months of complete sobriety.
– A child with anorexia nervosa should have at least 6 months of eating independently without restriction while maintaining 100% full weight-restoration with regular menstrual periods.
– A child with bulimia nervosa should have at least 6 months of normalized eating with complete abstinence from all binge/purge behaviors.

3.) A young person going off to college should have, at most, minimal or mild mental/emotional symptoms. For example, a child with an anxiety disorder who has occasional panic attacks, or who feels somewhat anxious at parties around new people, may be able to function well at college, but a child who has panic attacks multiple times a week or who avoids most social situations is not yet ready to go away.

4.) Ensure that your child has effective tools to manage any symptoms that may arise. This may include CBT or DBT skills to manage feelings of depression or anxiety.

5.) Work with your child and her treatment team to develop a self-care plan that includes plenty of sleep, physical activity, time management, and balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals.

6.) Do not rely upon university services (student health center or student counseling center) to provide therapy, psychiatric, or medical services for your child. University counseling centers are not equipped to manage the needs of students with major mental health issues. Most student counseling centers are over-worked, under-staffed, and underfunded. By necessity, most have limits on the number of sessions each student can attend, and most will not support parental involvement in treatment decisions or even communicate with parents at all.

7.) Prior to your child’s departure for college, establish a treatment team off-campus.
– Interview the clinicians over the phone and schedule a family meeting in person with the clinician before the school year starts, during the time you are helping your child move into the dorms. If the clinician is reluctant to talk with you over the phone or refuses to meet with you in person, this is a red flag.
– I recommend selecting a clinician who welcomes individualized, appropriate parental involvement in college students’ mental healthcare. This means working collaboratively with parents based upon the individual patient’s needs in light of her diagnosis, history, and developmental stage, irrespective of her chronological age.
– Ensure that your child signs releases of information allowing you to communicate with the clinician regarding your child’s care (law requires that persons over 18 must provide written permission for a mental health professional to release information to anyone, including parents).
– Use the initial family meeting to provide the clinician with any relevant history about your child’s condition. Written psychological evaluations or discharge summaries from previous treatment providers are very helpful in this regard.
– Work collaboratively with the new clinician and your child to establish frequency of contact, and nature of communication, between you and the new clinician. For instance, I often work out a plan wherein I call parents every two weeks, or once a month, with a general progress report on the patient, without revealing the specific content of sessions (e.g., “Mary is adjusting well to dorm life. She’s had some mild anxiety but she seems to be managing it well.” Or “Annie has been struggling with an increase in depressive symptoms over the past week. I will keep you posted and notify you right away if there is any indication of suicidality or deterioration in functioning.”) Be very clear about the type of information that will be shared between clinician and parents. It is important for the patient to establish a trusting relationship with the clinician and to feel secure that, in general, “what happens in therapy stays in therapy.” It is equally important for the parents to be reassured that they will be notified promptly if the child’s condition deteriorates.

8.) Have a safety net in place. Decide exactly what extra supports will be provided, and under what circumstances, if the child should experience an increase in symptoms while away at college. For example: an increase in symptoms lasting longer than one week may result in the child coming home for the next weekend, or perhaps a parent would travel to stay with the child in a hotel for a week or two.

9.) Have a plan B.
– Work collaboratively with your child and her new treatment team to establish what conditions would warrant a more serious intervention.
– Some situations, in my opinion, warrant a medical leave and an immediate return to the safety of home. For example, a suicide attempt or gesture, an episode of alcohol poisoning, a weight loss of more than 5 pounds (in the case of anorexia nervosa) or a recurrence of binge/purge symptoms lasting longer than a couple of weeks (in the case of bulimia).

10.) Always remember, and reiterate to your child: whatever happens is feedback, not failure.
– A medical leave of absence is not the end of the world. Nor is it permanent. It is simply an indication that your child temporarily needs more support than can be provided in the college setting. It is no different from a young person taking a leave of absence for major surgery or cancer treatment (try getting that done in the student health center!).
– Many young adults recover more swiftly from a relapse compared to the first time they were ill – the benefit of maturity and the motivation of wanting to return to college and independent living can be very helpful in this regard. If your child does well at home and recovers from the relapse, she may be able to return to school away from home the following semester or the following year.
– Depending on the circumstances and the course of your child’s illness, it is possible that the best scenario for her would be to live at home and attend college locally, or transfer to a school in-state and come home each weekend. Again, this is not the end of the world. If her recovery is robust after college, she will still have the opportunity to go away to graduate school or start the career of her dreams somewhere else.

Attending college is a privilege and a gift, not an inalienable right. It is not something that one must automatically do right after graduating from college. Living away from home, apart from one’s primary support system, to attend a faraway school is a privilege unique to American culture, and is not a prerequisite for success in any way. In most other countries, young people who do attend college (and not everyone does) do so locally while living at home until they are married.

Take your child’s psychiatric diagnosis very seriously, and do the right thing for her health. As her parent, it is not only your right but your duty to make these decisions, and you should be supported by a treatment team that empowers you to do so.

Why Clinicians Are Resistant to Maudsley FBT

Research has shown that the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is more effective than any other treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) in patients under age 18. Despite this fact, many clinicians who treat eating disorders are very resistant to using FBT to treat their patients. There are a variety of reasons for this resistance – some legitimate, some personal, some inexcusable, and some bred from ignorance.

Here are some of the most common reasons why clinicians who treat eating disorders are resistant to using FBT, along with my rebuttals to each:

1.) “I work with adults. FBT is not applicable to most adults.”

While FBT has not been adequately studied in adults, the reality is that there are no evidence-based treatments for adults with AN yet. I believe that patients over age 18 need to have loved ones fully informed about their illness and actively involved in their treatment just as much as young patients. The basic principles of FBT (with some age-appropriate modifications) are now being applied to older patients with very promising results.

As Cynthia Bulik’s recent study on Uniting Couples Against Anorexia Nervosa demonstrated, the principles of FBT can be applied very successfully to adults, using spouses or significant others for support rather than parents.

Also, there is some preliminary evidence that a modified version of FBT can be useful for college-aged patients who are temporarily living at home with parents during recovery. There may very well be a time in the not-too-distant future in which a modified form of FBT is an evidence-based treatment for adults.

2.) “Some families can’t do it.”

This statement is absolutely true – some families can’t do it. However, I believe that the true percentage of families who “can’t do it” is actually much smaller than one may think. FBT can be successful in divorced families, step-families, single-parent families, families with many children, families where both parents work full time, and families in which a parent suffers from a mental illness.

The only real contraindications for FBT in patients under18 are cases in which the patient has been physically or sexually abused by a parent, or both parents are so mentally or physically ill that they are unable to care for their children. Both of these contraindications are relatively rare, and even in these cases, one would hope that the patient would be living in a safe environment with other adults (e.g., relatives, foster parents) who could participate in FBT with the patient.

What happens too often is that parents don’t purse FBT because they aren’t aware it exists, or aren’t aware of the evidence behind it. It is also common for parents to be discouraged from doing FBT with their child because the child’s clinician (who is not really familiar with FBT or who doesn’t agree with it) tells the parent that it won’t work for their particular child for some reason.

In sum, I would estimate that maybe 10 % of families really can’t do it (I have no data to support this percentage; it is just an educated guess). The majority of families can do it if they have the proper clinical support and encouragement. The majority of parents love their children immensely and will do anything to help them recover if given the opportunity. It is up to us, the clinicians, to give families that opportunity.

3.) “Some adolescents don’t improve with FBT.”

I have no counterpoint to this one. The reality is that FBT is not effective for everyone. This is not a shortcoming unique to FBT, as there are no treatments that work for 100% of patients. I doubt that there will ever be one treatment that works for everyone in the same diagnostic category, because each individual patient is unique and has their own set of circumstances. Therefore, we must continue to research other forms of treatment and work to improve upon the existing treatments. When a patient does not improve with FBT, we must offer something else – residential treatment, day treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy – whatever is most appropriate for that particular patient and that particular family.

4.) “My training and inclination is as an individual therapist. Making the switch to working with families is intimidating. Learning FBT would be like starting from scratch.”

I don’t see it as starting from scratch. Rather, I see it as adding another (very effective) tool to your existing toolbox. You certainly don’t need to abandon individual therapy just because you’ve added a new treatment to your repertoire.

While some patients will recover fully with FBT and never need individual therapy, most patients do have co-morbid disorders or other issues which need to be addressed with individual therapy. In these cases, individual therapy comes after FBT. Many times I have transitioned to individual therapy with a patient after the patient has successfully recovered with FBT. The great thing about this approach is that the eating disorder has already been fully addressed through FBT, so you and the patient can focus all your time and energy on other things, such as depression, OCD, body image issues, perfectionism, and social difficulties.

5.) “My training is in psychodynamic therapy and relational approaches. FBT is pretty concrete and behavioral. Adopting FBT would seem to remove the very things that made me want to become a therapist in the first place – the focus on depth and the therapeutic relationship.”

FBT is more concrete and behavioral than other types of therapy, and I believe that is part of why it is so effective in treating these malignant illnesses which demand immediate behavioral management in order to save the patient’s health. That being said, the therapeutic relationship is just as essential in FBT as it is in other types of treatment. The parents and the therapist must develop trust in one another, and mutual respect is key, because the parents and therapist are allies working together against the illness on behalf of the child. It is extremely rewarding to be able to offer this kind of assistance and support to terrified, confused, guilt-stricken parents, who blossom with confidence as you educate them about the illness and empower them to do what needs to be done to help their child recover.

And the kids! It is nothing short of amazing to watch the therapeutic relationship evolve and unfold so quickly as recovery progresses. In the first few sessions, the kid typically presents as catatonically depressed, curled up in a fetal position under a blanket, sobbing quietly; or the kid reacts with extreme anger and resistance, yelling and hurling insults and dropping f-bombs before running out of the room. Entire tissue boxes are gone through in one session; stuffed animals need to be placed back on the shelves after being thrown. And within a few months, the kid is smiling, laughing, so happy to see you, chattering on about their trip to Disney World or their new boyfriend or how much they love ‘90’s music exclaiming “Wow, Dr. Ravin, it must have been so cool to be a teenager back in the ‘90’s!” The transformation is astounding.

Furthermore, there is lots of room for a tremendous amount of depth when continuing to work with the patient individually after FBT has been successfully completed. In fact, is even more feasible to go into greater depth in these cases, because the eating disorder is in remission and health-threatening behaviors have long-since been eliminated, so treatment can focus exclusively on other (often more interesting!) issues.

6.) “FBT is agnostic on etiology, and I think etiology is very important.”

Yes, FBT is agnostic with regards to etiology. In other words, the clinician states clearly at the outset of treatment that we don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders, and that it is not relevant for the purposes of this treatment. I believe this agnostic stance is one of the strengths of FBT: it does not waste time on “why” but instead focuses on “how” to help the patient recover.

I agree that etiology is very important because our ideas about etiology (for better or for worse) have a huge impact on how we treat patients. Therefore, clinicians and researchers must continue to have professional discussions about etiology amongst themselves.

My concern is not the discussion of etiology amongst professionals in the field. Rather, my concerns are 1.) When clinicians have a particular presumption about etiology which is not consistent with recent scientific evidence, 2.) When that particular presumption guides the use of treatments that are less effective, and 3.) When those presumptions about etiology cause harm to patients and their families by subtly or overtly blaming the patient or the family.

In my opinion, when clinicians discuss etiology with patients and their families, these discussions should be limited to the following points:

A.) Clarifying that neither the patient nor the family is to blame for the illness.

B.) Dispelling common myths about etiology (e.g., media, control issues, overprotective parents)

C.) Discussing the “Four P’s:” predisposing factors (e.g., genetic predisposition), precipitating factors (e.g., weight loss through dieting or illness), perpetuating factors (e.g., malnutrition has a calming and mood-elevating effect on those who are vulnerable to eating disorders), and prognostic factors (e.g., importance of early and aggressive intervention, maintenance of optimal body weight).

This is all the information patients and families need to know about etiology, because let’s be frank: this is all we really know about etiology. Anything else is just a distraction.

When Books are Wrong

A new book on eating disorder treatment entitled When Food is Family will be published later this year. The book is written by a therapist with over 25 years of experience treating eating disorders who is also the founder and director of an eating disorder clinic.

The premise of When Food is Family is that early childhood relationships play a significant role in the development of an eating disorder. The book is based on attachment theory, which posits that “emotional support, understanding, empathy, and acceptance during a child’s development are the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.” The author asserts that children develop eating disorders in part because they do not receive the emotional support and nurturing they need from their families, so they develop a “relationship with food” as a substitute for the intimate familial relationships they crave.

According to the online synopsis, When Food is Family “provides family members a step-by-step approach to understanding what attachment means, why connection to each other is important, how relationship breakdowns can lead to an eating disorder, how food becomes the relationship of choice, and how to go about repairing these relationships so that food (and the eating disorder) is replaced by healthy relationships within the family.”

My primary concern with this book is that it seems to set our field back about 20 years. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support the theory that disrupted attachments or dysfunctional family relationships lead to eating disorders. Nor is there any reliable evidence that treatment approaches predicated on these attachment theories help patients achieve recovery.

I absolutely agree that “emotional support, understanding, empathy, and acceptance during a child’s development are the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.” Of course childhood environment is important in the development of self-esteem and emotional well-being. Of course “relationship breakdowns” within a family cause emotional suffering for everyone. Disrupted attachments are bad. Healthy attachments are good. But I am not aware of any evidence that disrupted attachments can lead to eating disorders.

The fact that some eating disorder patients come from dysfunctional families does not indicate that said family dysfunction caused their eating disorder. Correlation does not equal causation. Despite decades of research and millions of dollars spent on cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, researchers have not been able to identify anything that parents do, or don’t do, to cause eating disorders in their children.

The theories espoused by this book are not only unfounded and incongruent with our modern scientific understanding of eating disorders, but also potentially harmful to young patients and their families who are seeking treatment for these life-threatening illnesses.

When parents have a child with a poorly-understood, stigmatized, confusing, life-threatening illness such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, they do not need to be told by an expert that family dysfunction is at the root of her illness. The family unit is not well-served when parents are told by an expert that they have failed to bond properly with their children, and this failure to bond has resulted in their child developing a serious illness. Parents with an anorexic or bulimic child do not need to be taught skills to develop healthy attachments with their children. They need well-informed professional support which empowers them to take aggressive action to help restore their child to health.