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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Tag: evidence-based treatment

Monday, November 20th, 2017

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa (2009 – 2017)

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me between the start of my practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.  Patients and families whom I saw only for evaluations or consultations rather than treatment were not included in this sample.

The sample includes 60 individuals (93% female) who ranged in age from 10 – 37 years old, with a median age of 16 and a modal age of 13.  The majority of patients identified as Caucasian (69%) or Hispanic (29%), with less than 3% identifying with other racial/ethnic groups.

Twenty percent of patients in this sample met criteria for the Binge-Purge Subtype of AN, while the remaining 80% had Restricting Subtype.

Half of patients in this sample had a comorbid diagnosis.  The two most common comorbid diagnosis were  ADHD and Major Depressive Disorder, with 13% of patients meeting criteria for each of these disorders.

Duration of illness before beginning treatment with me ranged from 2 months to 21 years, with older patients, on average, having been sick for a longer duration of time.  The mean duration of illness before entering treatment with me was just under 3 years.

Most patients had a history of unsuccessful outpatient treatment with other providers prior to beginning treatment with me.  In addition, 28% percent of patients had a history of hospitalization for AN prior to beginning treatment with me and 15% had a history of residential treatment.

Ten percent of the sample paid a reduced rate for services due to financial need.

What follows is a summary of treatment outcomes.  For a more detailed description of treatment outcomes for patients with AN, click here.

Description of Treatment Received

  • 95% of child and adolescent patients received Family-Based Treatment (FBT).  The remaining 5% received individual therapy.
  • 40% of patients over age 18 received FBT, either alone or in conjunction with individual therapy. The remaining 60% received individual therapy.
  • Some adolescent FBT patients received individual therapy for a co-morbid condition after their course of FBT was complete.
  • All patients received medical monitoring by their physician during treatment with me.
  • 58% of patients took psychotropic medication at some point during their treatment with me.
  • Average number of sessions attended was 23.
  • Average duration of treatment was 13 months.

Reasons for Treatment Ending

  • 50% of patients completed a full course of treatment with me
  • 26% dropped out of treatment prematurely
  • 22% were referred to other providers
  • 3% moved to other geographic locations during treatment

Treatment Completion

  • 97% of patients who completed treatment achieved full recovery. The remaining 3% achieved physical remission.
  • The majority of patients who completed treatment did so in a time frame of somewhere between 7 months and 2 years.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 27 sessions over the course of 17 months.
  • Patients with co-morbid conditions required more sessions, on average, than those without co-morbid conditions.

Weight restoration

  • All patients who completed treatment achieved 100% full weight restoration, as indicated by a return to their pre-AN percentile patterns of growth for height and weight.
  • Average time to achieve weight restoration was 3.6 months.
  • Patients who recovered with individual therapy took longer, on average, to achieve weight restoration than those who recovered through FBT.

Treatment Dropout

  • 26% of patients dropped out of treatment prematurely.
  • Patients receiving individual therapy were almost twice as likely as those receiving FBT to drop out of treatment prematurely.
  • For treatment drop-outs, there was a significant correlation between length of time spent in treatment and progress made.
  • All treatment dropouts who were in treatment with me for at least 2 months had made significant progress at the time of drop-out.
  • Patients who dropped out of treatment after one month or less had not made any progress at the time of drop-out.

Status at End of Treatment with Me

Recovery status was assessed for each patient as of his/her final session with me, regardless of the reason for treatment ending.  The statistics listed below are for the entire sample of patients, including those who completed a full course of treatment, those who dropped out prematurely, and those who were referred to other providers due to a geographic move or a need for a different level of care or type of care.

  • 48% had achieved full recovery
  • 2% achieved physical remission
  • 22% made significant progress
  • 5% made some progress
  • 18% made no progress
  • 3% regressed

Predictors of Positive Treatment Outcome

  • Completion of a full course of treatment: 97% of those who completed treatment achieved full remission.
  • Younger age (Children under 13 had the highest rates of full recovery, followed by adolescents ages 13-17).
  • Patients receiving FBT were almost twice as likely as those receiving individual therapy to achieve full recovery.
  • Males were more likely to achieve full recovery than females.
  • Patients with Restricting Anorexia Nervosa were more than twice as likely as those with Binge-Purge Anorexia Nervosa to achieve full recovery.
  • Patients taking psychotropic medication during treatment were somewhat more likely to achieve full recovery than those who did not take psychotropic medication.
  • Patients who paid full rate for treatment were somewhat more likely to achieve full recovery than those who paid a reduced rate due to financial need.
  • Caucasian (non-Hispanic) patients were somewhat more likely than Hispanic patients to achieve full recovery.

 

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Monday, November 6th, 2017

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders (2009 – 2017)

 

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of a mood disorder who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me between the start of my practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.

The sample includes 34 individuals (29 females and 5 males) who ranged in age from 12 – 59 years old, with a median age of 20.  The majority of patients in this sample (65%) had a primary diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder.   Other primary diagnoses included Unspecified Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and Persistent Depressive Disorder (formerly known as Dysthymia).

More than half of these patients (56%) had a secondary diagnosis.  The most common secondary diagnoses were anxiety disorders. Other secondary diagnoses in this sample included ADHD, eating disorders, and PTSD.

Approximately 30% of the sample had a history of psychiatric hospitalization, most commonly for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, prior to staring treatment with me.

Description of Treatment Received

The length of treatment varied dramatically, from one week to 3.7 years.  Number of sessions attended also varied dramatically, from 1 session to 135 sessions.  The broad range of treatment duration and sessions attended reflects the reality that some individuals decided not to proceed with treatment after one or two sessions, whereas other individuals attended sessions off and on, as needed, for the duration of their high school or college years.  The average duration of treatment was 11.9 months and the average number of sessions attended was 28.  So, a typical patient with a mood disorder attended approximately 28 sessions over the course of one year.

The type of treatment received was tailored to the individual patient, based on his or her presenting symptoms, circumstances, age, and preferences.  Forty-one percent of patients received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), 18% received a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills-based approach (NOT a comprehensive DBT program), 30% received integration of CBT and supportive counseling, and 11% interpersonal psychotherapy or supportive counseling.

Level of family involvement varied depending on the patient’s age, presenting symptoms, preferences, and living circumstances.  For the purposes of this assessment, high level of family involvement means that at least one family member attended all or most sessions with the patient.  Moderate level of family involvement means that family members attended some sessions and maintained ongoing communication with me throughout treatment.   Low level of family involvement means that at a family member was involved in the evaluation and/or at least one session, but most sessions were individual.  Among all patients in this sample, 18% had a high level of family involvement, 21% had a moderate level of family involvement, 18% had a low level of family involvement, and 44% had no family involvement.  Degree of family involvement was higher, in general, for adolescent patients than for adult patients, with all patients under age 18 having at least some family involvement in their treatment.  Fifty percent of adolescent patients (under age 18) had a high level of family involvement, while 42% had a moderate level of family involvement and the remaining 8% had a low level of family involvement.

Nearly ¾ of patients saw a psychiatrist and took psychotropic medications during treatment.  Nearly ¼ of patients were hospitalized during treatment, most commonly for suicidal ideation or suicidal gestures.

Treatment Completion and Recovery Rates

Of all patients who began treatment with me for a mood disorder, 15% achieved complete recovery, 24% made significant progress, 41% made some progress, 15% made no progress, and 6% regressed.  For a detailed description of what terms such as “complete recovery” and “significant progress” mean, please see this blog post from 2013.

Eighteen percent of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.  Completing a “full course of treatment” was defined as a mutual ending in which the patient, his/her family (in cases where family was involved) and I mutually agree that treatment goals have been met and treatment is no longer needed.  Of these “treatment completers,” 83% achieved full recovery and the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.

The length of time required to complete a full course of treatment varied dramatically from person to person, depending on symptom severity and progress in treatment.  Time required to complete treatment ranged from 1 month to 3 years, with a mean of 16.6 months.  Likewise, number of sessions required to complete treatment varied dramatically between individuals.  Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 4 – 96 sessions, with an average of 23 sessions.  So, on average, individuals who were most successful in treatment (e.g., those who completed treatment and achieved full remission from their mood disorders) attended an average of 23 sessions over the course of 16 months.

Fifteen percent of patients moved to another geographic location during their treatment (either to attend college or to live elsewhere permanently), prior to completing a full course of treatment with me.  As of their last session with me, 60% of these “movers” had made significant progress in their treatment and the remaining 40% had made some progress.  These individuals were referred to other treatment providers in near their universities or new homes for continued treatment.

The dropout rate for patients with mood disorders was fairly high: 50% of patients discontinued treatment with me prematurely.  As of their last session with me, 18% of these “discontinuers” had made significant progress towards treatment goals, 59% had made some progress, and 24% had made no progress.   On average, individuals who discontinued treatment sooner made less progress, while those who remained in treatment longer made more progress towards their treatment goals.   Three quarters of the individuals who made no progress dropped out of treatment after just one or two sessions, and the remaining one quarter dropped out after 5 sessions.  In contrast, those who made significant progress prior to dropping out of treatment attended an average of 20 sessions.

I do not have data on what happens to patients after they discontinue treatment, so this is purely speculation, but I believe several factors contribute to the high dropout rate among patients with mood disorders.  First, depression frequently interferes with a person’s motivation and ability to carry out tasks, and tends to make people hopeless and pessimistic.  Individuals with these symptoms may have a more difficult time persisting towards a goal, such as scheduling appointments and continuing with treatment over a number of months, and they may feel less hopeful about having a positive outcome in treatment.  Second, some patients and families may be satisfied with “good enough,” and may drop out of treatment after making good progress but before achieving all treatment goals.  In contrast, I have high standards for my patients: I believe that full recovery is possible for most people, and when full recovery does not seem achievable, then a full and meaningful life with well-managed symptoms is an alternative good outcome.  I work diligently with patients and their families in pursuit of these goals.

Eighteen percent of patients with mood disorders were referred to other clinicians who could better meet their needs.  I made these referrals when a patient was not progressing in treatment, and when it did not appear likely that they would make progress in the near future.  As of their last session with me, 17% of referred patients had made significant progress, 33% had made some progress, 17% had made no progress, and 33% had regressed.

Predictors of Treatment Outcome

Not surprisingly, completion of a full course of treatment emerged as a strong predictor of positive treatment outcome.  83% of individuals who completed treatment achieved full recovery, while the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.  None of the individuals who discontinued treatment prematurely achieved full recovery.

Another strong predictor of positive treatment outcome in this sample was referral source.  Eighty percent of individuals who achieved full recovery were self-referred (e.g., they found my practice through an online search), while the remaining 20% were referred by word of mouth (e.g., by a friend).    In contrast, none of the individuals who were referred to my practice by their psychiatrist, pediatrician, or another therapist completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery, although a number of them made significant progress.  My interpretation of this finding is that individuals who proactively sought my services of their own volition may be especially dedicated to improving their mental health, more invested in their treatment, and thus more likely to persevere through a full course of treatment and achieve recovery.   In the case of self-referred adolescents, their parents were the ones who actually brought their children to treatment.  These parents, on the whole, were particularly attuned to their child’s needs and struggles, researched their child’s symptoms and the variety of treatment approaches available, sought my services proactively, and were especially motivated to help their child recover.  Perhaps this parental conscientiousness, attunement, and empowerment helped facilitate recovery for their children.

Level of family involvement in treatment predicted treatment completion and full recovery for adolescent patients but not for adult patients.  All of the adolescents who completed treatment and recovered had moderate or high levels of family involvement.  In contrast, 75% of the adults who completed treatment and achieved full recovery had no family involvement in their treatment, while the remaining 25% had a low level of family involvement.

Individuals who took psychotropic medication were somewhat less likely to recover than those who did not: 40% of individuals who achieved full recovery were taking medication during treatment, whereas 76% of individuals who did not achieve full recovery were taking medication during treatment.  It is unlikely that taking psychotropic medication caused patients to have a worse outcome.  I believe the most likely explanation for this finding is that taking psychotropic medication is a marker of severity: individuals with more severe forms of mood disorders (e.g., Bipolar Disorder, Severe Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder) are more likely to need medication and are perhaps less likely to achieve complete remission of symptoms.

Hospitalization during treatment emerged as a predictor of less favorable outcome.  None of the individuals who were hospitalized during their treatment with me completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery.  It is unlikely that being hospitalized actually caused patients to quit treatment or caused them to make less progress in their treatment.  It is more likely that hospitalization, like taking psychotropic medication, is a marker of severity, and those individuals with more severe illnesses are less likely to experience complete remission of symptoms.

The following variables did NOT predict treatment outcome: age, gender, ethnicity, duration of illness, diagnosis, presence of co-morbid diagnoses, rate paid for services, type of treatment received, or history of hospitalization prior to starting treatment.

 

 

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Friday, August 4th, 2017

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders (2009-2017)

 

In an effort to improve the quality of services I offer, and in the service of full transparency to those who seek treatment, I am committed to compiling and sharing outcome data every few years on the patients I have treated.   The last time I compiled and shared my treatment outcome data was in 2013, so it is time for another round, this time with a larger sample to describe.

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of an anxiety disorder who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me at any time between the start of my private practice in 2009 and spring of 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.

This sample includes 16 patients, all female, who ranged in age from 10 – 42 years old, with a median age of 20.

Description of Treatment Received

Seventy-five percent of these patients were treated with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), while the remaining 25% of patients were treated with supportive or client-centered therapy.

Length of treatment and number of sessions attended varied considerably among these individuals.  The vast majority of patients were in treatment with me for somewhere between 2 – 19 months and attended somewhere between 3-17 sessions.   The median duration of treatment was 4.5 months, and the median number of sessions attended was 12.

Degree of family involvement varied based on the patient’s age and living circumstances.  All patients under age 18 had at least a moderate level of family involvement, and 83% of patients under age 18 had a high level of family involvement.  Patients of college age had low- to moderate levels of family involvement, and most adult patients in their 30’s and 40’s had minimal, if any, family involvement.

Forty-four percent of patients were taking psychotropic medication, prescribed by their psychiatrist, during their treatment with me.  None of the patients in this sample were hospitalized during the course of their treatment with me.

Treatment Completion and Recovery Rates

Of all patients who entered treatment with me for anxiety disorders, 44% percent recovered completely from their anxiety disorder, while 38% made significant progress in terms of reduction of symptoms and improvement in functioning, and 19% made some progress towards recovery.   In sum, all of the patients in this sample made at least some progress towards their treatment goals.  For a detailed description of the criteria used to determine “full recovery,” “significant progress,” and “some progress,” see this blog post from 2013.

Half of the patients who entered treatment with me for anxiety disorders completed a full course of treatment.   Completing a “full course of treatment” was defined as remaining in treatment until the patient, her family (when involved), and I collaboratively agreed that treatment goals had been met and further treatment was not needed.  The number of sessions required to complete a full course of treatment ranged from 3 – 25 sessions, with a median of 4 sessions.  The duration of treatment for those who completed a full course of treatment ranged from 1-19 months, with a median duration of 3 months.  Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 88% achieved full recovery and 12% made significant progress since starting treatment.

The remaining half of patients did not complete a full course of treatment with me, either because they quit treatment prematurely, they moved to another geographic location, or I referred them to another clinician.   Among those who did not complete a full course of treatment, 63% had made significant progress in their recovery at the time they left treatment with me, and the remaining 37% had made some progress.  It is important to note that I do not have data on what happens to patients after they leave my practice, so these treatment outcomes are based on an assessment of the patient’s symptoms and functioning as of the last session they attended with me. It is possible that some individuals who left treatment prematurely achieved full recovery later on their own, or in treatment with another clinician, after leaving my practice.  It is also possible that some individuals experienced a worsening of their condition after leaving treatment.

Predictors of Treatment Outcomes

A high level of family involvement in treatment emerged as the strongest predictor of successful treatment outcome.  100% of patients who had high levels of family involvement in treatment completed a full course of treatment and achieved full recovery.

Completion of a full course of treatment was the second strongest predictor of successful outcome. 88% of patients who completed a full course of treatment achieved full recovery from their anxiety disorder.  The remaining 12% of treatment completers had made significant progress since the start of treatment.

Younger age was also a predictor of successful treatment outcome.  Younger age was strongly correlated with both high family involvement and completion of treatment.

Other factors associated with successful treatment outcome include shorter duration of illness, good attendance at therapy sessions, paying full rate for services, and being self-referred to my practice.

Not surprisingly, discontinuing treatment prematurely was associated with less favorable outcomes.   Even so, 63% of individuals who discontinued treatment prematurely had made significant progress since beginning treatment with me, and the remaining 37% had made some progress.  These data indicate that the majority of individuals with anxiety disorders experienced significant benefits from treatment in terms of reduction of symptoms and improvement in functioning, whether or not they completed treatment a full course of treatment.

Other factors strongly associated with a less favorable treatment outcome included the presence of a comorbid diagnosis, taking psychotropic medication during treatment, and being referred to my practice by a psychiatrist.  Interestingly, these three factors were strongly correlated with one another: all of the individuals who were referred to my practice by their psychiatrist were taking psychotropic medication and 80% of individuals referred by their psychiatrist had comorbid diagnoses.

The following factors were modestly associated with less favorable treatment outcomes: older age, longer duration of illness, lower levels of family involvement, poor attendance at therapy sessions, and paying reduced rate for services.  Again, these factors tended to co-occur with one another, and also tended to co-occur with the three negative prognostic factors listed above.

These statistics reflect overall trends, not absolutes.  Some individuals in this sample did achieve full recovery despite being adults with long duration of illness and no family involvement, or having other characteristics typically associated with less favorable treatment outcome.

For a more detailed description and interpretation of these statistics, click here.

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Sunday, June 11th, 2017

There’s an App for That!

 

Technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance mental health and aid in recovery from psychological disorders.   For example, patients can use smart phone apps to help them track moods and symptoms, implement coping strategies, and reach out for help from clinicians and peers when needed.   Most evidence-based, behaviorally-oriented treatments for mental health problems – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – require some degree of self-monitoring.  These types of treatments also strongly encourage daily practices to enhance well-being, such as journaling, identifying and challenging negative thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

Most of the teenagers and college students I work with are far beyond the old pen-and-paper logs and worksheets I was trained to use during graduate school.  It seems there’s an app for everything these days, and so many of these apps are relevant to mental health and wellness.  Today’s young people organize their lives on their smart phones anyway, so it is only natural that we would look to the smartphone to help them self-monitor their symptoms, complete their therapy assignments, and keep track of the strategies they use to help themselves.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that are useful to people with mental health conditions.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Recovery Record app helps patients with eating disorders self-monitor their meals and snacks as well as thoughts, feelings, and urges that arise around food.

The Insight Timer app offers a meditation timer, thousands of free guided meditation tracks, groups for like-minded meditators, and the ability to track quantitative statistics such as how many minutes the user spends each day in meditation.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach is an electronic version of the Diary Card used in standard DBT practice, which helps the patient track target behaviors and utilize DBT skills from the modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The nOCD app helps patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder implement their exposure and response prevention treatment while compiling objective, real-time data on their experience.

I am a firm believer that what transpires in the therapist’s office is only a fraction of the treatment package.  Most of the healing process results from consistent changes that patients and their families make on a daily basis at home, at school, and in various social settings.   Thanks to modern technology, individuals who are committed to improving their well-being are now able to hold new tools, literally, in the palms of their hands.

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Friday, June 2nd, 2017

World Eating Disorders Action Day 2017

 

Today is the second annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and I am proud to be a part of this international movement.   World Eating Disorders Action Day (#WeDoAct) is a grassroots movement designed for and by people affected by eating disorders, their families, and the healthcare professionals who support them. Uniting activists across the globe, the aim is to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses which affect both males and females across the weight spectrum, as well as people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and nationalities.

In honor of today, I would like to bring attention to films, podcasts, and websites which are spreading the messages that I am passionate about – the messages upon which I have built my practice and established my professional identity.  These messages are:

Here are the informative resources that promote these vital messages:

New Plates: A Podcast Series on eating disorders by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh.  I was thrilled to be interviewed for the first two episodes of New Plates, and my lovely associate, Dr. Tarah Martos, was featured in Episode 10.

Tabitha Farar’s blog and podcast series on adult eating disorder recovery.  I was honored to be a interviewed for her podcasts on How to Find an Eating Disorders Therapist and Eating Disorders and Starting College.

Going Sane: a fascinating and sobering documentary about the failure of the mainstream mental healthcare industry and the importance of utilizing family-centered, evidence-based practice instead.

Parents-to-Parents: A website by and for parents of children with Anorexia Nervosa.

I have seen tremendous growth within this field over the past decade, in large part due to the work of tireless parent advocates and a handful of progressive clinicians.  But still, we’ve got a long way to go.  Join me in spreading the truth about eating disorders and recovery.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Parent-Focused Treatment: An Attractive Alternative to FBT

 

The results of a randomized clinical trial (RCT) comparing Parent-Focused Treatment (PFT) and Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for adolescent Anorexia Nervosa (AN) were published this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  As a practitioner of FBT, and as a clinician who is always looking for ways to improve patient outcomes, I read this article with great interest.

Family-Based Treatment (FBT), when applied strictly according to the manual, entails a psychologist or other mental health professional meeting with the family as a whole – the adolescent patient, both parents, and siblings – in a single session.  In contrast, Parent-Focused Treatment (PFT) involves the psychologist meeting privately with the parents, while the patient’s weight, vitals, and mental status are monitored by a nurse.

While FBT and PFT therapy sessions are conducted in different formats, the essence of the treatment – which is implemented by parents in the home – is the same.  Both treatments empower parents to work together to increase their adolescent’s food intake, restore him or her to a healthy weight, interrupt eating disordered behaviors, re-establish normal eating patterns, and return him or her to a state of healthy adolescent development.

The results of this study demonstrated that PFT is more efficacious than FBT.  At the end of treatment, patients receiving PFT were twice as likely to be in remission from AN compared with patients receiving FBT.  In addition to being published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the article was summarized nicely by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

As I was reading this article, it occurred to me that I have been utilizing a version of PFT with some families in my private practice for years, as I have adapted FBT to suit the needs of each individual family.   For example, it is not uncommon for an adolescent patient with AN to refuse to attend some or all of the family sessions during Phase I (the re-feeding and weight restoration phase).  Personally, I have not found this to be problematic.  After all, in an FBT model, the parents are the primary agents of change in early recovery from AN.   The patient is more of a passive recipient of care – his or her job is simply to show up at the table and eat.

In my experience, most parents make excellent use of the Phase I sessions to receive support, learn more about AN, brainstorm and problem-solve, and collaborate with their spouse in the re-feeding process.  All of these things can be done with or without the child present, so long as the child’s weight is monitored weekly.  The weekly weigh-ins can be completed at the pediatrician’s office or under parental supervision at home.

As another example, many patients are so anxious about eating high-calorie foods, gaining weight, and eliminating exercise that attending sessions –during which these topics are discussed at length – is just too overwhelming.  Increasing a patient’s anxiety can sometimes be counterproductive to treatment goals.  For instance, if the patient is present during discussions of “fortifying” foods (e.g., increasing the caloric density by adding cream, oil, butter, or Benecalorie) or discussions of weight goals, this may heighten her anxiety to the point that she cannot eat these fortified foods, or she may become even more resistant to gaining weight.    For an underweight patient with AN, talking and listening are over-rated.  Eating and gaining weight are essential.

In my experience, patients who do not attend sessions during Phase I tend to have just as much success in recovery as patients who attend every single session.  Furthermore, the vast majority of the time, the kids who refuse to attend sessions in Phase I will begin to attend sessions voluntarily after weight restoration occurs and their treatment progresses through Phase II and Phase III.  By that time, most patients have the cognitive and emotional capacity to participate in their own recovery process and have some interest in getting better.

On the other hand, there are some cases in which it makes more sense to have the patient attend all of the FBT sessions, cases in which her participation in the treatment enhances her success in recovery.  Often (though not always), these are cases in which the patient is older, more independent, less cognitively impaired, less anxious, more curious about the process, and/or has some degree of personal motivation to recover at the outset.

I have also found that it is also very important for the patient to attend all sessions in cases where the parents are less willing or less able to take full responsibility for their child’s recovery.   For instance, I’ve worked with families in FBT in which both parents have active addictions to drugs or alcohol, families in which another member is coping with a health crisis (e.g., a parent with a recent cancer diagnosis), families in which the parents are going through an acrimonious divorce, and large families with many young children.   These have been cases in which the parents, while supportive in theory, were unable to invest as much time and energy into their child’s recovery as other families.  The patients from these families, in my observation, tended to be more resilient and more autonomous than other teens, likely .as a result of growing up in challenging environments.  I have observed that the adolescents in these more challenging situations have been able to (or perhaps required to) take on a greater degree of independence earlier in the recovery process.

The outcomes of this clinical trial were disappointingly low for both forms of treatment.  At the end of treatment, only 43% of patients receiving PFT had achieved remission, and only 22% of patients receiving FBT achieved remission.   Before you become discouraged, however, please allow me to explain my theories as to why remission rates were so low.

First, I believe that the poor outcomes of this study were, at least in part, due to the fact that families were randomly assigned to one type of treatment or the other.   Of course, in conducting a controlled clinical trial to study the efficacy of treatments, it is necessary to use random assignment to control for confounding variables and increase the validity of the results.  I suspect that if families were able to choose between PFT and FBT based on their own needs, desires, circumstances, and knowledge of their child, the outcomes would have been significantly more promising.  This has certainly proven to be true in my practice.

Consider the “treatment refusers” I described above, with whom I have effectively used PFT essentially by default.  On the other hand, consider the teens who come from more challenging family environments, whose participation early in treatment is instrumental to their recovery.  If the families with “treatment refusers” were randomly assigned to Family-Based Treatment, or if families with other significant challenges were randomly assigned to Parent-Focused Treatment, I suspect that the patient would be much less likely to occur.

Second, the course of treatment in this study was 18 sessions over the course of 6 months.  This sounds woefully insufficient to me.  In my experience, some patients do achieve full remission within 6 months, but this is certainly not the norm.  In my practice, most patients with AN are fully weight-restored within 3 or 4 months, but full remission of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms generally takes 12-18 months of treatment.   It is not unusual for patients to require 2 or 3 years of treatment in order to attain full remission and become ready to manage their eating independently.

I point out these time frames because I do not want patients or their families to feel discouraged when recovery takes so much longer than they expected.  The patients in these clinical trials who did not achieve full remission at end of treatment are the NORM, not the exception, and this is not due to any failure on the part of the patient or the parents.  Rather, the research study itself places unrealistic expectations on individuals with AN and their families.   Any clinician who has treated many patients with AN could tell you that full remission after 6 months is simply unrealistic for a majority of AN sufferers.  Individuals who have gone through treatment for AN, and parents who have helped their children recover, know all too well that vestiges of AN are often present for many months after weight has been fully restored.

I am confident that the majority of adolescents with AN who are not in full remission after 6 months of treatment will go on to achieve full remission within two or three years, especially when they utilize evidence-based, family-centered care.

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Monday, January 25th, 2016

Iatrogenic Effects

The year is 1892. Emily, age 14, is the second of six children in a Midwestern farming family. One evening in March, Emily’s mother catches a glimpse of her daughter undressing and is taken aback by how slim she looks. Over the next few days, mother notices that Emily eats very little at family meals. She mostly just pushes her food around the plate and slips pieces of her food under the table to the family’s two dogs.

Later that week, Emily’s older sister, Cora, confides in her mother that Emily is no longer getting her monthly cycles. Now mother is greatly concerned, and she has a talk with her husband, who is equally worried. Both parents sit down with Emily and express their concern over her poor eating habits, weight loss, and absence of menstrual cycles. In response to her parents’ talk, Emily bursts into tears. “I just can’t eat,” she cries. “I just can’t.” Mother and father hug their daughter, comfort her, and let her know that they will be taking her to the family doctor the next morning.

When Dr. Benson examines Emily the following day, he is alarmed by his young patient’s gaunt appearance and flat affect. She is no longer the bubbly, robust young girl he has known since birth. Emily’s pulse is much lower than normal, her muscles have wasted, and her adolescent figure has shrunken to a pre-pubescent one.

“Emily is gravely ill and melancholy,” Dr. Benson tells the worried parents. “She is malnourished, and she will need lots of food and rest to recover. She needs complete bed rest for the next three months, plenty of food at each meal, and six tall glasses of milk per day. I will see her again next week.”

Emily cries heavily all the way home, burying her head in her mother’s skirt. As soon as the family gets back to their house, her mother prepares her a large plate of food with extra bread and butter and a tall glass of milk. Mother sits beside Emily and strokes her daughter’s hair as she stares – terrified – at the heaping plate of food. “You will not be doing any chores this spring,” her father tells her firmly. “Cora will do your indoor chores and Ethan will take over your outdoor chores. You will not be returning to school this year – the 2-mile walk is too strenuous for you in this condition. Cora will speak with your teachers and bring home your assignments. You will study from home. You will return to school and chores when you are well.”

“But Papa…” pleads Emily. “I have to –“

“That’s enough, young lady. You know better than to take that tone with me. This is final.” With that, Emily’s father abruptly leaves the room. Tears stream down Emily’s cheeks as she weeps silently. Mother strokes her back and whispers: “Come on, sweetie. Eat.” Hands shaking, Emily picks up her fork and takes a bite. Mother waits with her at the table for the next two hours as she finishes every last bite of food and every last drop of milk.

19th century family

Dr. Benson makes house calls weekly over the next few months. Emily is always lying on her bed, reading and sipping a glass of milk, when he arrives. He watches the young girl slowly put on weight, regain her strength and stamina, begin to smile again, and then blossom into the cheerful teenager she was meant to be. By the time June rolls around, Emily has resumed her monthly cycle and returned to her normal weight. At this point, Dr. Benson gives her permission to begin doing some light chores around the house.

By September, Emily is eating with gusto. She has had three monthly cycles in a row and has regained her curvy figure. She returns to school and resumes all of her farm chores. Her parents are relieved to have their daughter back.

The vignette above illustrates how Anorexia Nervosa (AN) would have been treated several generations ago. Quite a stark contrast from how AN is treated today, isn’t it? The illness itself has remained basically the same throughout time, but the way that people conceptualize it and respond to it has changed dramatically. Consider the following differences between Emily’s treatment in 1892 and the treatment Emily’s great-great-granddaughter Marissa received in modern times:

1.) Emily’s parents are immediately concerned by her weight loss and dwindling food intake. They view weight loss in a growing adolescent as a sign of illness and take her to the doctor immediately. Marissa’s parents are pleased when they notice her becoming slimmer shortly after her 14th birthday. They praise her for foregoing desserts and snack foods. They encourage her interest in athletics and bring her jogging with them in the morning.

2.) Emily’s family doctor is immediately concerned by his young patient’s weight loss, lack of menses, and changed demeanor. At her 15-year-check-up, Marissa’s pediatrician commends her on her 12-pound weight loss. When Marissa’s mother expresses concern to the pediatrician about her daughter’s low heart rate and absence of menses for the past three months, the doctor explains that it is common for female athletes to lose their monthly cycle, and that Marissa’s low heart rate is also due to being a runner.

3.) The prescribed treatment for Emily – full nutrition and complete bed rest – is commenced immediately and aggressively. Eating more food is not recommended, or even suggested, for Marissa. Marissa continues running with the blessing of her doctor and the encouragement of her coach.

4.) The doctor views Emily’s parents as competent agents to re-feed their starving daughter and enforce bed rest for a prolonged period of time. Marissa’s parents are advised to “stay out of the food business” and admonished not to be the “food police.”

5.) Dr. Benson monitors Emily’s condition weekly and supports the family throughout the recovery process. Emily’s menstrual periods return naturally as she restores a healthy weight. Marissa’s pediatrician does not see her again until she develops a stress fracture 5 months later. Marissa has now lost a total of 20 pounds, and her pediatrician gently suggests that she tries to eat a little more. The pediatrician also refers her to a gynecologist, who prescribes birth control pills to re-start her periods.

6.) Emily is expected to comply with the prescribed treatment, and parents are expected to enforce it. Marissa restricts her food intake even more. She is now eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, and chicken breast. Scared to make matters worse, her parents say nothing.

7.) Emily eats hearty meals with her family every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus plenty of whole milk in between. Unable to watch her daughter starve herself any longer, Marissa’s mother takes her to a local therapist who was recommended by a neighbor. This therapist begins meeting with Marissa weekly, and also refers them to a family therapist and a dietitian. Marissa is now attending multiple appointments each week and following a 1600-calorie exchange plan created by her dietitian. She prepares her own meals, weighing and measuring everything.

8.) The doctor recommends chamomile tea with honey to soothe Emily’s nerves. Neither Emily nor her parents are blamed for her AN. The etiology of the illness is not discussed with Emily or her family, as it is not known. Marissa’s weight does not change, but her mood deteriorates. The therapist refers Marissa to a psychiatrist, who prescribes Lexapro and Klonopin. The family therapist suggests that Marissa’s AN is a cry for attention, as her father works long hours at his law firm and her mother is very preoccupied caring for her younger son with autism.

9.) Emily’s weight was restored to her normal range within three months of commencing treatment. She remains home with her family throughout and maintains good physical and mental health for the rest of her teenage years. By her 16th birthday, Marissa has lost 4 more pounds (a total loss of 24 pounds in 2 years). Her therapist recommends residential treatment at a well-marketed eating disorder treatment center in another state. Marissa spends 3 months at this residential treatment center. The psychiatrist there prescribes two additional psychotropic medications. Within a month of returning home, Marissa relapses and returns to the center for another 3 months.

10.) Emily maintains good relationships with her parents and siblings. She trusts her family to help her when she needs them. By the time she turns 18, Marissa has had three psychiatric hospitalizations, four stays in residential eating disorder treatment, and is taking five different psychotropic medications in addition to Ambien for sleep and birth control pills to regulate periods. She barely speaks to her parents and refuses to sign consents to allow them to access her healthcare information.

Emily and Marissa developed the same illness at the same age but received very different treatments and thus had very different outcomes. Emily’s AN was completely resolved within 6 months, whereas Marissa remains gravely ill and in intensive treatment four years later. Marissa experienced the iatrogenic effects that are so prevalent in modern eating disorder treatment. Iatrogenic effects are harmful outcomes caused by a medical intervention. In other words, a treatment which is intended to help a patient ends up making her condition worse or creating a new problem that wasn’t there before.

Marissa’s story is all too common. The adults around her – with good intentions – inflicted harm by prolonging her state of semi-starvation, prioritizing her adolescent autonomy above her physical health, disempowering her parents, alienating her from her family, subjecting her to time-consuming, costly, and ineffective therapies, prescribing powerful psychotropic drugs that may not have been necessary, isolating her from her primary support system, and surrounding her with other mentally ill teenagers.

modern girl

Clearly, some teenagers with Anorexia Nervosa have complicated presentations with multiple comorbidities which require a team of professionals and specialized care. But there are also many cases in which a simple and straightforward intervention would be far more effective and efficient than the iatrogenic treatments that so many kids and families endure. This is precisely why Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is so effective: it minimizes the iatrogenic effects of other eating disorder treatments. Mainstream eating disorder treatment often morphs Emilys into Marissas.

What would have happened to Marissa if she had been provided with the same treatment as her great- great-grandmother Emily? Would she, too, have regained full health in a matter of six months, and bounced back into a vibrant adolescent life? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems likely that she could have. It’s definitely worth a try. Our 21st century Marissas need and deserve treatment that is AT LEAST as effective as 19th century Emilys.

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Friday, September 11th, 2015

After Weight Restoration: What About Body Image?

Body image disturbance is one of the most insidious and painful symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In many cases, body dissatisfaction is the last symptom to abate. However, the relationship between body image and recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is fairly complex. Many individuals with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) do not experience body image problems as a symptom of their illness. Most people with AN, however, do have some degree of body image disturbance which changes in intensity over the course of their illness and recovery.

A recent randomized controlled trial of adolescent AN treatment found that weight and shape concerns did not change significantly over the course of treatment. The authors of the study point out that, on the one hand, these results suggest that weight and shape concerns do not get worse over the course of treatment. This finding may come as a relief to patients who are terrified that they will hate their bodies if they gain weight. The authors conclude that “weight restoration alone is not sufficient to ameliorate the weight and shape concerns characteristic to AN.”

While the authors’ conclusion may be accurate in some cases, my clinical experience with AN patients as well as my knowledge of statistics leads me to a different conclusion. I have observed that the relationship between weight restoration and body image varies dramatically from person to person. When it comes to AN and body image, people tend to fall into one of the following categories:

1.) Those who do not have significant weight or shape concerns.

2.) Those who present for treatment with significant weight and shape concerns, which gradually abate over the course of weight restoration and may even disappear by the end of treatment.

3.) Those who become increasingly dissatisfied and distressed by their weight or shape as they restore weight.

My hypothesis is that the authors of the study found no significant change in body image over the course of treatment because patients in group 2 and group 3 essentially cancelled each other out, while those in group 1 did not impact the results in either direction.

As you can see from the groupings above, body image disturbance may not even be relevant for the patient (group 1), and if it is, weight restoration alone may be sufficient to improve body image (group 2). For this reason, I typically postpone addressing body image until after weight restoration has been accomplished and the patient has re-established normal eating patterns. By postponing body image work until the end of treatment, the patient and her family save a lot of time, money, and stress, as a substantial proportion of patients do not need it.

Individuals in group 3, however, may benefit from working on their body image in therapy. Helping these individuals improve their body image will be the topic of my next blog post.

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Monday, May 18th, 2015

After Weight Restoration: The Role of Motivation

Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. Basically, motivation is what drives us to act.

In eating disorder circles, motivation generally refers to an inner drive to achieve or maintain recovery. Given that anosognosia is a primary symptom of Anorexia Nervosa (AN), most patients have little or no insight or motivation while they are ill. When a person does not perceive herself as ill, she will not be motivated to recover. When a person perceives himself as superior while undernourished, emaciated, and hyperactive, he will be highly motivated to maintain his AN.

Fortunately, motivation is not necessary to begin recovering from AN. In Family-Based Treatment (FBT), motivation is neither expected nor required of patients during Phase I (re-feeding and weight restoration). So long as the parents are highly motivated to return their child to good health (as most parents certainly are), patient motivation is unnecessary.

There are two types of motivation:

Extrinsic motivation is a drive to perform an activity to attain a particular outcome. Extrinsic motivations come from outside the individual. For example, a student is motivated to study in order to earn good grades and gain admission to an elite college.

Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive to perform an activity for personal reasons, based on interest or enjoyment of the task itself. Intrinsic motivation exists even in the absence of external reward. For example, a young artist who is passionate about painting spends hours in the studio completely immersed in her art.

Parenting often involves the use of extrinsic motivation early on, as a pathway to developing intrinsic motivation. A toddler is motivated to use the toilet by getting a star on her chart; a preschooler is motivated to follow her parents’ rules to avoid getting a time-out; a teenager is motivated to be home by curfew to avoid getting grounded.

The ultimate goal of parenting, of course, is for the children to grow into independent adults who are no longer dependent on extrinsic motivation to exist in society. Eventually, the child feels intrinsically motivated to use the toilet because sitting in soiled underpants is uncomfortable; she is kind to her friends and siblings because it is the morally correct thing to do and she wants to maintain good relationships with them; she comes home at a decent hour so that she can get a good night’s sleep and function well the following day.

Similarly, a long-term goal of treatment for Anorexia Nervosa is for the patient to be intrinsically motivated to stay healthy and remain in recovery. But while we wait for intrinsic motivation to develop, it is perfectly fine and, in many instances, absolutely necessary, to impose external motivations in order to nudge the person along towards recovery.

Patients with Anorexia Nervosa often have little or no intrinsic motivation to recover during their acute phase of illness. In fact, most patients are highly motivated to continue engaging in eating disorder behaviors because there are powerful biological, psychological, and social forces compelling them to do so. For this reason, it is often essential to use extrinsic motivations of some sort to get patients to engage in recovery-oriented behavior such as eating meals, gaining weight, refraining from purging, and attending appointments with their treatment team.

Patients with AN are often compliant, rule-abiding people-pleasers. We can harness these traits in a positive way to promote recovery. It is common for patients to report that they are eating and gaining weight to make their parents happy or to please their doctors. It is even more common for patients to comply with re-feeding and maintain their ideal weight in order to avoid hospitalization or continue playing the sport they love.

Parents often worry that, if left to her own devices, their child would most certainly eat too little, exercise too much, start purging again, and fall down the rabbit hole once more. This worry is completely valid, and this is precisely why patients need a very high level of support and monitoring for a long time after diagnosis. Incidentally, the need for a high level of support and monitoring continues for much, much, much longer than what is provided by most treatment programs or paid for by most insurance companies. One of the reasons why patients need such high levels of support for so long is that intrinsic motivation is neither realistic nor possible for most patients until they are further along in recovery.

While acutely ill patients often lack the motivation to recover, many patients who are weight-restored and further along in their psychological recovery feel very motivated to stay well. I believe that there are several reasons for this shift in motivation in the later stages of recovery:

1.) The ability to think more clearly, thanks to a well-nourished brain and body.

2.) Maturity. Patients get older and more mature as they progress through recovery, and thanks to a more developed prefrontal cortex, they can think ahead, make plans, and follow through with their intentions.

3.) Perspective. Patients in the later stages of recovery have often been through hell and back. They have reclaimed their lives, and while they may not remember much of the acute phase of their illness, they know it was awful and they have no intention of going back.

4.) Parental intervention. Parents who have helped their children recover from AN tend to be extremely motivated to help them stay well. Perhaps more importantly, they feel empowered to use the tools and strategies they’ve learned through treatment to maintain an environment conducive to ongoing recovery and to set limits, without hesitation, on any behavior that jeopardizes recovery.

Motivation seems to be the natural consequence of restored health and improved insight. Once an adolescent or young adult is no longer encumbered by AN, he begins to realize how sick he once was, and how much AN ruined his life. As he returns to school, sports, hobbies, and an active social life, he begins to build a life worth living. This new life motivates him to stay in recovery and deters him from engaging in behaviors that could lead to relapse.

I have found that older adolescents and young adults are often motivated to stay in recovery in order to achieve their goals. For example, they want to go away to college or graduate school, they want to study abroad, they want to get married and have children, they want to travel the world, they want to have a rich and meaningful life that is not dominated by intrusive thoughts about carbs or calories or the circumference of their thighs.

How can you enhance motivation in someone who is recovering from AN? Well, intrinsic motivation, by definition, must grow and flourish from within. It cannot be imposed upon someone from the outside. However, there are a few things that family members and clinicians can do which may facilitate development of intrinsic motivation:

1.) Help the person build a full, rich, meaningful life.

2.) Remind the person periodically (not forcefully or frequently) that his new life would not be possible without continued recovery.

3.) Highlight and enhance the personal characteristics that have helped the person achieve and maintain recovery (e.g., “You are such a strong, courageous, dedicated person to have overcome this illness”).

4.) Help the person identify his core values and support him in living a life that is congruent with these values. What is most important in life? How does he want to be remembered by loved ones after he dies? Unless the person is acutely ill with AN, he is unlikely to say that being thin, exercising excessively, or avoiding sugar and flour his core values.

Staying focused on core values and pursuing a meaningful life are powerful motivators and potent antidotes to the anorexic thoughts that come to visit from time to time.

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Sunday, September 7th, 2014

After Weight Restoration: The Role of Insight

One of the hallmark symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is anosognosia, or a brain-based inability to recognize that one is sick. For this reason, most patients have little or no insight when they first present for treatment. Even months into effective treatment, most patients with AN continue to demonstrate anosognosia from time to time, if not consistently. The irony here is that most patients with AN do not believe they are sick until after they have gotten well.

I am outspoken in my belief that insight is unnecessary, not to mention unlikely, in early recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). I do not expect my patients to have any insight whatsoever early on in their treatment with me. I expect kids with AN to present in my office denying that they have a problem. Their lack of insight does not delay or undermine treatment one bit.

In Family-Based Treatment (FBT), the patient is not required to demonstrate any insight at all during Phase I (Re-feeding and weight restoration). Phase II (returning control of eating to the adolescent) and even Phase III (establishing a healthy adolescent identity) can be successfully completed with a relatively small amount of insight on the patient’s part.

The re-feeding and weight-restoration components of treatment can be achieved without the patient’s consent or compliance. Through FBT and similar family-centered approaches, parents can feed their children complete, balanced nutrition and ensure that they maintain a healthy weight for as long as necessary. In theory, a patient could exist in an externally-maintained state of physical health forever, which would be far better than suffering the long-term medical and psychological consequences of AN. But this is not recovery.

Children and younger teens tend to lack the maturity to develop good insight even after their AN has been in remission for quite some time. Lack of insight is completely normal at this stage of development, even for kids who have never had a brain disorder. It is not necessarily problematic for recovering adolescents to lack insight as long as they are living safely under their parents’ roof.

For older adolescents and young adults, however, there comes a point later in recovery, after physical health is restored and most mental symptoms have subsided, when a patient does need to develop some insight about their illness and “own their recovery.” Patients do not need insight to get well, but they certainly do need insight in order to live a healthy, fulfilling, independent life.

As a side note here, the type of insight I am referring to here has nothing to do with “discovering the root cause” or “learning to love yourself” or “finding your voice” or any of the other talking points commonly referenced in ED recovery circles. The important insights to gain, in my opinion, are the following:

1.) Acknowledging and accepting that you have (or had) an eating disorder, which is a biologically-based brain illness that you did not choose to have and your parents did not cause

2.) Acknowledging and accepting the possibility of relapse

3.) Ability to recognize eating disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in yourself

4.) Understanding the necessity of maintaining full nutrition, every day, for life

5.) Accepting the necessity of maintaining your ideal body weight in order to reduce the risk of relapse

How do you help a person who is recovering from AN to develop insight? It’s tricky, and it varies considerably based upon the patient’s own unique experience of having AN. Unlike full nutrition and weight restoration, insight cannot be thrust upon someone against their will. The patient must be an active participant in the process.

I find it helpful, as a therapist, to have frank conversations with patients and their parents about the biological basis of AN, potential triggers, vulnerability to relapse, and the importance of practicing good self-care. A single conversation at the start of treatment is rarely sufficient. Instead, I integrate these conversations into most of our sessions to help the patient absorb and internalize this information. For the first few months of treatment, these discussions are primarily for the benefit of the parents, as most kids are too malnourished and shut-down to process this information. However, after weight restoration and brain healing, these discussions can have a powerful impact on recovering kids.

Parents often have these insight-building conversations with their recovering teens at home. Often, teens will get defensive, shut down, or lash out when parents bring up these topics. But sometimes kids actually listen!

Many weight-restored patients go through a phase of romanticizing their AN, longing to return to the days of extreme thinness, perpetual motion, and hyper-focus on academics and athletics. While these feelings are understandable and typical at a certain stage of recovery, they need to be counterbalanced with conversations about the negative impact AN had on their bodies, their minds, and their lives. Otherwise, it is all too easy for recovering people to view AN through “rose-colored glasses.”

Bear in mind that the development of insight can take years. Recovered teens who initially presented for treatment at age 13-14 (the typical age of onset) will often show a blossoming of insight around age 17-18, just as they are preparing to leave home for college. This newfound insight is often the result of a variety of factors, including consistent full nutrition, brain healing, normal adolescent developmental processes, maturity, frontal lobe development, and successful therapy. I have worked with many adolescents for whom this happens beautifully, organically, and right on time. These kids go off to college in other states and thrive.

In other cases, however, the timing may be far less convenient. Those who develop AN at 16 or 17 years of age may not be sufficiently recovered to develop the insight needed to manage their illness independently at that magical age of 18. Similarly, who relapse during their junior or senior year of high school may have a setback in the process of insight development and thus may not be ready for independence right after high school.

In some cases, kids are diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence but don’t receive effective treatment until late adolescence. In these cases, it may take even longer for insight to develop if the illness has become entrenched and emotional maturity lags far behind chronological age.

Further, teens who have suffered through months or years of ineffective treatment may have built up an arsenal of bogus myth-based insight that has nothing to do with the reality of their illness. For example:

• “I developed AN as a way to cope with feeling out of control in life.”

• “I have to want to get better on my own. I have to do this for myself.”

• “Re-feeding doesn’t help us discover the root cause of your illness.”

• “I am enmeshed with my parents and this is keeping me sick. I need to become more independent.”

These myth-based “insights” very often result in parental alienation and protracted illness.

As you can see, all insight is not equal. The insights worth having are those that are based in empirical science, those that empower parents to help their offspring recover, and those that serve to help patients achieve and maintain their physical and mental health while living a full and meaningful life.

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

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