Dr. Sarah Ravin - Psychologist | Eating Disorders |Body Image Issues | Depression | Anxiety | Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders | Self-Injury
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Dr. Sarah Ravin

Welcome to my professional blog. I am a Florida Licensed Psychologist and trained scientist-practitioner. In 2008, I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A major component of my professional identity is staying informed about recent developments in the field so that I may provide my clients with scientifically sound information and evidence-based treatment. There is a plethora of information on the internet about Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Psychotherapy. Unfortunately, much of this information is unsubstantiated and some of it is patently false. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and opinions on psychological issues, with scientific research and clinical experience sprinkled in for good measure, I can help to bridge the gap between research and treatment.

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June, 2010

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

A False Dichotomy

One of the things that bothers me most about my field is the false dichotomy between biology and psychology. On the one hand, there are psychiatrists who over-diagnose and overmedicate without taking the time to get to know patients and truly understand their symptoms. They spend very little time with patients and try to solve everything with a pill, rather than providing psychotherapy or referring patients to a psychotherapist. These psychiatrists do not take into account the role of environmental stressors, lifestyle (nutrition, sleep, substance use), and learned patterns of thinking that can be successfully treated without medication.

On the other hand, there are therapists who over-pathologize and overanalyze. These therapists are married to unscientific, unsupported psychodynamic theories about the etiology of psychological problems which tend to attribute symptoms to supposed family dysfunction and internal conflicts. These therapists fail to take into account the powerful role of genetics and neurobiology in contributing to the patient’s symptoms. They ignore or discount the recent scientific advances in our field, and they do not employ empirically-supported treatments which have been demonstrated to be effective. They rely instead on their opinions and “clinical judgment.”

Neither side of this dichotomy serves its patients well, as both sides fail to appreciate the true complexity of the human experience. One side places all eggs in one very small proverbial basket (a pill), effectively abnegating the patient of any responsibility for behavioral, psychological, or environmental change. The other side places an unfair amount of blame on the patient and / or her family, searching for root causes that may not exist, traumas that may never have occurred, or dysfunction in normal thoughts and behaviors. Consequently, it is implied, if not blatantly asserted, that biologically-driven thoughts and behaviors are freely chosen and can be un-chosen just as freely with enough insight into said root causes, traumas, and dysfunction.

I am often disappointed by those mental health professionals who have so little scientific understanding of the interaction between genes and environment, between biology and psychology, between experience and neurodevelopment. They seem to forget that the mind is an abstraction of the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Their thinking is so dichotomous – disorder X was caused by either genes OR environment; treatment must be medication OR psychotherapy; it’s a neurobiological illness OR it is caused by environmental factors. They don’t seem to understand that, with mental illness, it’s rarely a question of “nature or nurture.” Rather, it is nature AND nurture, both of which come in many forms. Biology, psychology, and environment are constantly interacting, with each of these components profoundly impacting the other two.

I would like to see all mental health professionals develop a full understanding of and appreciation for biopsychosocial models of mental illness and evidence-based treatments. It is my hope that psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals from all disciplines will begin taking a more well-rounded approach to treating psychiatric disorders and helping people achieve mental health.

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Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Rethinking Residential Treatment: Less is More

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.

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Monday, June 14th, 2010

Recovery Timeline for Maudsley FBT

I recently conducted an informal survey of parents who had used the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment to help their children recover from eating disorders. My intention was to gather some preliminary data on recovery milestones which I could share with patients and families who are just embarking on the recovery journey. Then I realized that other people may benefit from this information as well.

The following data were collected from parents of some of my patients (past and present) as well as from parents on FEAST’s caregiver forum, Around the Dinner Table. A total of 22 parents submitted responses. The patients (20 female, 2 male) ranged in age from 10 – 24 years when their family started Maudsley (mean age = 15.3 years).

The patients in my sample varied dramatically with regard to the length of their illness. Some parents reported that they began Maudsley within a month after their child’s first eating disorder symptoms appeared. Other parents had watched their child continue to suffer from the devastating effects of ED through many years of ineffective treatment and numerous hospitalizations before finally turning to Maudsley as a last resort.
Granted, this is not good science, but it is a start.

Length of time from onset of symptoms to beginning of refeeding
Mean = 18.8 months
Median = 6.25 months
Range = 1 – 132 months

Length of time from start of refeeding to weight restoration
Mean = 6.7 months
Median = 4.5 months
Range = 2 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to acknowledgement of having ED
Mean = 1.1 months
Median = 0 (acknowledged having ED when he/she became weight restored)
Range = 0 – 16 months
(90 % of the sample acknowledged having ED at or before weight-restoration)

Length of time from weight restoration to developing motivation to recover
Mean = 4.6 months
Median = 0 months (motivation developed at the time of weight restoration)
Range = 0 – 24 months

Length of time from weight restoration to eating independently while maintaining weight
Mean = 7.8 months
Median = 6.5 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight restoration to mood normalization
Mean = 3.3 months
Median = 2 months
Range = 0 – 12 months

Length of time from weight restoration to normalization in anxiety (return to pre-ED level)
Mean = 6.5 months
Median = 3 months
Range = 0 – 36 months

Length of time from weight-restoration to absence of body dysmorphia
Mean = 6.9 months
Median = 4 months
Range = 0 – 24 months

Clearly, more rigorous research is necessary in order to draw definitive conclusions. However, I’ve drawn some preliminary conclusions based on my data:

1.) The Maudsley Method can be effective for children, adolescents, and adults. It can be effective for both males and females.
2.) The Maudsley Method can be effective even for young adults who have been ill for 10 years or more.
3.) Most patients who are beginning Maudsley treatment have anosognosia – they do not recognize that they are ill and do not have motivation to recover. The patient does not have to “want to get better” in order for treatment to begin.
4.) The majority of patients develop insight and motivation to recover around the time that they reach a healthy body weight. For some patients, insight and motivation develop gradually after a number of months at ideal body weight.
5.) Patients generally require continued meal support for an average of 6 months after weight restoration.
6.) The manualized Maudsley approach (Lock, LeGrange, Agras, & Dare, 2001) recommends beginning to hand control of eating back to the patient when she reaches 90% of ideal body weight. This is probably too soon for most patients.
7.) The majority of patients must sustain a healthy body weight for 3-6 months before depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia abate.

This is interesting food for thought (pun intended). I am interested in conducting a much larger survey on families that have used Maudsley. I’d like to gather enough participants and enough data points to be able to do some actual complex statistical analyses – maybe some ANOVA’s or multiple regressions. Through this study, I’d like to examine which variables contribute to recovery time. For example, what features differentiate patients who are able to eat independently at weight restoration vs. those who need continued meal support? What differentiates the patients whose psychological symptoms melt away with weight restoration vs. those who continue to struggle? Most importantly, I would like to use data from this future study to find ways in which the Maudsley method could be improved.

What questions would you like to see answered? I welcome any and all suggestions!

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Monday, June 7th, 2010

What a Difference a Year Makes

A funny thing happened at work this spring. It hit me one day that my patients with serious or chronic mental illnesses were doing a whole lot better. Many of them had recovered completely. Others still had a few symptoms which were relatively minor, manageable, and well-controlled. What was responsible for this dramatic and rather sudden improvement? Was it the gorgeous springtime weather? No, this is Miami – the weather here is gorgeous year round. Was it something I was doing differently? No, because I have been using the same evidence-based treatments all along.

And then it hit me. I opened my private practice in March 2009. A number of patients have come and gone since then – mostly those with mild or moderate issues who did very well with just a few months of CBT and were ready to end their treatment. Then there are those with more severe mental illnesses whom I’ve been seeing since last spring – those with anorexia, bulimia, severe depression, and personality disorders. Those longer-term patients are doing exceptionally well now because a full year has passed since they began treatment.

So many ingredients go into a successful recovery from mental illness. My recipe typically includes some combination of the following: psycho-education for patient and family, weekly therapy using evidence-based practice, full and consistent nutrition, restoration of physical health and weight, family support, a stable and low-stress environment, acquisition of healthy coping skills, plenty of sleep and exercise, psychotropic medication, clarification of core values, creating a full and meaningful life, and time.

That last ingredient – time – is often forgotten but absolutely essential for recovery. It takes time for parents to learn how to manage their child’s mental illness. It takes time for a patient and her family to grasp fully what it means to have major depression or borderline personality disorder or anorexia nervosa. It takes time for a patient’s brain to heal, for her neural pathways to re-wire. It takes time for the therapeutic relationship to flourish. It takes time to learn and master new skills and implement them in daily life. It takes time to heal broken relationships and build a life worth living. It takes time for the dedication, persistence, and heroic efforts of the patient and family to translate into psychological health and stability.

We live in a fast-paced world of high-speed internet and instant coffee, of fast food and quicktrim and rapid refills. Patience is a virtue so few of us possess. As burgeoning technology has made so many things quicker and easier, we have become far less tolerant of things that require us to wait and persevere. It can be humbling and frustrating to realize that some things still require considerable time and effort.

Most things that are truly worthwhile in life take time and effort. Earning an advanced degree, mastering a foreign language, writing a novel, learning a new sport or musical instrument. Starting a business, building a strong friendship, nurturing a romantic relationship, creating a family. None of these things happen quickly. Those who struggle with mental illness have an added challenge of expending considerable time and effort to do the things most people take for granted – getting out of bed in the morning, eating a meal, leaving the house without having a panic attack, tolerating emotional pain without self-destructive behavior. These people face the additional burden of shame and stigma, expensive and time-consuming treatment which is typically not covered by their insurance, family and friends who don’t understand, and the absence of that proverbial quick fix. Treatment for mental illness is SO HARD and it takes SO LONG, but it is definitely worth it!

My time in private practice – 15 months now – has been the most rewarding experience of my life so far. I have seen victims become survivors; suicidal students develop a thirst for life; skeletal teens blossom into self-confident young women. Those desperate parents of sullen kids who once curled up in a fetal position on my couch became joyful and optimistic as their child’s bubbly personality reemerged. All of these miracles took time.

There are new patients now – those who cry in despair and lash out in anger, those who would rather not exist than endure another day enslaved to their own minds. There are the terrified, exhausted parents who wonder when this hell will ever end. These brave souls keep me humble, keep me challenged, and most importantly, keep me going. I have faith and hope that by next spring, they will be strong and stable and full of life, that I can say goodbye and trust that they will never have to see me again.

If you are battling a mental illness in yourself or in your loved one, remember this: time heals. Be a tortoise, not a hare. As Winston Churchill famously said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.”

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Top 10 Psychologists in Coral Gables 2015

Sarah Katherine Ravin's Practice is ranked in the top Coral Gables, FL Psychology practices.

Top 10 Psychologists in Coral Gables 2015