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: mental illness

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Fighting Stigma: The Gift of a New Generation

Somehow, sometime in the past several years, I crossed some invisible line from “young adult” to simply “adult.”  Polite strangers call me “ma’am” at least as often as they call me “miss.”  Shopping at Forever 21 now seems scandalously inappropriate.  And I can’t remember the last time I was still awake to watch Saturday Night Live.  Now that I seem to be old enough to complain about the younger generation (They think women’s empowerment is posting bikini-clad selfies!  They use social media excessively! Their pivotal relationship conversations take place over text message!), it seems only fair that I also recognize the strengths of this cohort.  And they do have tremendous strengths.

Teenagers and young adults these days, for the most part, have grown up in an era where it is socially acceptable, even encouraged, to speak openly about mental health issues.  Just about every high school and college student who walks into my office has at least a couple of friends with mental health diagnoses.   Most of my patients have one or more members of their extended family, if not their immediate family, who has dealt with a mental illness.   And they know this because they talk openly about it.

And that excessive use of social media I complained about a minute ago?  Well, social media has allowed famous people to speak candidly to a wide audience about their experiences with mental illness, seeking treatment, and ultimately recovering.   Actress Kristen Bell has struggled with depression.   Writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham has received treatment for OCD.  Singer Demi Lovato has spoken openly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her recovery from an eating disorderJohn Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, has chronic anxiety which he is able to control with therapy and medication.  Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a diagnosis of ADHD.  These individuals have been extremely successful in their professions and have had the courage to speak publicly about their psychiatric problems.

Even more courageous than these celebrities, though, are the regular people who attend school, play sports, hold down jobs, pay bills, raise families, volunteer in their communities, and maintain friendships while also dealing with mental illness.  These are the people who have a lot to lose from the stigma surrounding mental health issues.  These are also the people who have the most to gain from breaking down the stigma.

The younger generation is fighting this stigma.  Australia’s National Youth Mental Health foundation has created an organization called Headspace dedicated to supporting adolescents and young adults with mental illnesses as well as combating stigma surrounding these issues.  In the UK, Prince William, Princess Kate, and Prince Harry have created Heads Together, a charity dedicated to fighting stigma surrounding mental illness and improving the mental well-being of all citizens.  Here in the US, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is running a Stigma-Free campaign.

The message of these organizations is simple and straightforward: mental illness is common and treatable.  Mental health problems are as much a part of the human condition as any other health problem.  Untreated mental illness can have dire effects on the individual, on the family, on the community, and on society as a whole.  People who have psychiatric diagnoses can overcome them and live fulfilling, successful, meaningful lives.  Learn about it.  Talk about it.  Seek treatment when needed, and support others in doing so as well.  Silence and shame help no one.

I can’t recall ever hearing these messages as a teenager or young adult.  If these messages existed at all back in my day, they were eclipsed by the OJ Simpson trial, overshadowed by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, drowned out by the Spice Girls and ignored amidst episodes of Friends.  It is an honor and a privilege for me to treat the teens of this generation, who live their lives with more knowledge, understanding, and acceptance than the generation before them.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. Well-rested bodies and brains are healthier, more resilient, and more energetic. For those with depression and other mood disorders, getting plenty of sleep must be a priority. In fact, research has demonstrated that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than those who get sufficient sleep. Further, new research has shown that sleep disturbances can trigger psychiatric illnesses in those who are vulnerable.

Sleep is every bit as important as medication and therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. For this reason, I make a point of discussing and monitoring sleep patterns with my patients, and I integrate sleep hygiene into their treatment plans.

A recent study financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in The New York Times found that a psychological treatment called CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) doubled the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression.

This was not surprising to me. I was trained in CBT in graduate school and I have seen cognitive-behavioral techniques work wonders in many of my patients. But the implications of this study, and the fact that the results have made it into the popular media, are quite significant.

One of the most disturbing and unfortunate trends in mental health care in recent years has been the overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underuse of behavioral and psychological interventions. This trend is especially bothersome to me because I am keenly aware – thanks to my training and experience as a psychologist – that certain evidence-based psychological treatments are as effective, if not more effective, than medication for treating certain illnesses.

Unfortunately, most people outside the field of psychology don’t know this. Americans are bombarded daily with advertisements for psychotropic medication on television, online, and in print. It’s only natural, then, that consumers who are suffering from depression or anxiety would request medications from their doctors, even when they have a problem that can be successfully treated by other means.

Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means anti-medication. I am thankful that we have effective, relatively safe medications on the market now that can help people effectively manage serious illnesses which were once disabling. Indeed, psychotropic medication can be extremely helpful – even life-saving – for many people. My concern is that psychotropic medications are prescribed too frequently to people who may not need them, often without the necessary monitoring, and often without the corresponding psychological and behavioral interventions that have been proven effective.

As a psychologist who practices said psychological and behavioral interventions, rather than a psychiatrist who prescribes said medications, am I biased? Well, obviously. I believe in what I do and I chose this profession for a reason. But still.

My hope is that, with articles such as this one, the general public will learn that evidence-based psychological treatments exist which can reduce their suffering and improve their quality of life. I would like people to be fully informed about their options when it comes to mental health treatment. I look forward to the day when people experiencing psychiatric symptoms routinely ask their primary care physicians for referrals to psychologists who practice evidence-based treatments, rather than, or in addition to, asking for prescriptions.

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Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Giving Thanks

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I am faced daily with stories of tragedy, trauma, illness, conflict, and loss. Each therapy session is a window into private suffering.

“Isn’t it hard?” people ask me. “Isn’t it awful to listen to people’s problems all day long? Doesn’t it make you depressed?” My answers to these questions are: “Yes,” “No,” and “Quite the opposite.” It is painful to witness people suffering, but it is endlessly rewarding to help them triumph.

Rather than letting other people’s pain drag me down, I feel honored that they have shared it with me and privileged that I am in a position to help them cope with it. I am intimately aware of the obstacles people face – and overcome – every single day. Being a clinical psychologist provides me with daily opportunities to participate in stories of healing, strength, opportunity, resolution, and empowerment.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans begin to think about expressing gratitude for the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Consider these:

If you get out of bed next Thursday, give thanks.
There are those with depression who cannot do so without herculean effort.

If you are preparing to host relatives in your home, give thanks.
There are those with crippling social anxiety for whom a house full of guests would be unthinkable.

If you are planning to travel across several time zones to spend the holiday with relatives, give thanks.
There are those with mood disorders for whom jet lag can trigger an episode of mania or depression.

If you are looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, give thanks.
There are those with anorexia nervosa for whom a holiday feast is an object of fear, loathing, and guilt.

If you set the table next Thursday in under five minutes, give thanks.
There are those with OCD who cannot relax unless every napkin, fork, and knife is lined up precisely.

If you sit on the couch after dinner to watch football with your uncles and cousins, give thanks.
There are those with bulimia nervosa who will be pacing around the house, waiting for an opportunity to purge unnoticed.

If you settle into bed with a good book later that evening, give thanks.
There are those who will be cutting their forearms with a razor to numb themselves from the intolerable emotions triggered by the day’s events.

If you go to bed Thanksgiving night satiated and content, give thanks.
There are those whose restless worry keeps them up until sunrise.

If you have never even considered feeling grateful for these ordinary things, give thanks.
Our mental health, and that of our family, should not be taken for granted.

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Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders

Since opening my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 30 patients with mood disorders. Former patients who attended at least one treatment session with me following their evaluation were included in this sample. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample. As you read, please bear in mind that these data are specific to my practice and my patients, and should not be generalized to other therapists or other patient populations.

The 21 patients in this sample had a range of different mood disorder diagnoses. The most common diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder (43%; n = 9). Other mood disorder diagnoses included Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (19%; n = 4), Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3), Bipolar Disorder (14%; n = 3), and Dysthymia (10%; n = 2). Approximately one quarter of the sample (24%) was male.

Patients ranged in age from 12 to 59, with a median age of 21. Most of these patients had been suffering from their mood disorder for years before beginning treatment with me, and most had received some sort of psychological or psychiatric treatment in the past. Duration of illness prior to intake ranged from 1 month to 35 years, with an average duration of 8.4 years. These figures reflect the length of time since symptoms began, which is usually substantially earlier than diagnosis.

Many mood disorders, such as Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, tend to be episodic, characterized by periods of remission and periods of relapse. Thus, the “duration of illness prior to treatment” figures reflect the total length of time from the onset of first symptoms to the initial session with me. Many patients had periods of mild or absent symptoms and good functioning in between mood disorder episodes.

Most of the patients in this sample had relatively severe forms of mood disorders. Thirty-eight percent of them (n = 8) had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, suicidal gesture, or related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me, and many of these individuals had been hospitalized multiple times. Fourteen percent of patients (n = 3) had to be hospitalized during the course of their treatment with me.

This sample was ethnically diverse, comprised of 43% White Hispanic, 43% White Non-Hispanic, 10% multi-racial, and 4% Black Hispanic. The majority of patients in this sample (86%; n = 18) paid a reduced fee for my services; only 14% (n = 3) paid my full rate. Thus, most of these patients were of lower socio-economic status and/or were college students responsible for supporting themselves.

Approximately half of the sample (52%; n = 11) had a comorbid psychiatric disorder. The most common comorbid diagnoses were Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3).

The patients in this sample received various types of treatment, depending on their age and symptoms. Nearly half of the patients in this sample (48%; n = 10) received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Patients whose illnesses were characterized by impulsivity and self-harm received a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills-based approach (38%; n = 8). Patients with milder symptoms and social difficulties received supportive counseling focused on self-care and interpersonal relationships (14%; n = 3). Sixty-two percent of patients (n = 13) were also seeing a psychiatrist and taking psychotropic medication during their treatment with me.

The level of family involvement in a patient’s treatment varied based upon his or her age, symptoms, and preferences as well as logistics. In this sample, 43% (n = 9) of patients had no family involvement, 19% (n = 4) had a low level of family involvement, 19% (n = 4) had a moderate level of family involvement, and 19% (n = 4) had a high level of family involvement.

I require the parents of all patients under 18 to be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment. Therefore, all patients under 18 in this sample had moderate to high degrees of family involvement in treatment. This means that the patient’s parents participated fully in the evaluation and treatment planning, and participated in a portion of most therapy sessions (e.g., the last 10 minutes of each session) for the purposes of providing feedback, setting goals, and evaluating progress. These parents also had regular access to me via phone and email for the purpose of sharing information about their child and asking questions. For patients over age 18, family members were involved as appropriate, as needed, and as requested by the patient. For example, many college-aged patients had parents involved in their treatment, particularly when it came to issues of psychiatric consultation and hospitalization.

Patients in this sample attended between 1 and 96 sessions, with a mean of 19 sessions. Duration of treatment ranged from 1 month and 39 months, with a mean duration of 7 months. In other words, the typical mood disorder patient attended 19 sessions over the course of 7 months.

Twenty-nine percent of patients (n = 6) completed treatment and 38% (n = 8) quit treatment prematurely. I referred twenty-four percent of patients (n = 5) to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% of patients (n = 2) moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred to other providers near their new homes.

Patients who completed treatment attended between 1 and 96 sessions, with an average of 23 sessions. Duration of treatment for those who completed treatment ranged from 1 to 39 months, with an average duration of 11 months. Thus, it typically took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Each patient was given an end-of-treatment rating which describes their state as of their final session with me, regardless of the reason why treatment ended.

• Patients were classified as being in “full remission” if they had not experienced any symptoms of their mood disorder within the past two weeks, and their social / occupational / academic functioning were good.

• Patients were classified as having made “significant progress” if their mood disorder symptoms over the past two weeks were substantially less severe, less frequent, and less intense than at intake, but were still occurring, and their social / occupational / academic functioning were relatively good.

• Patients were classified as having made “some progress” if their symptoms over the past two weeks were somewhat less severe and less frequent than at intake, and if their social / occupational / academic functioning were fair.

• Patients were classified as having made “no progress” if the frequency, intensity, and duration of symptoms had not improved since intake, and social / occupational / academic functioning had not improved since intake.

• Patients were classified as “regressed” if their symptoms over the past two weeks were more severe or more frequent than at intake and their social / occupational / academic functioning had declined since intake.

Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% (n = 5) achieved full remission from their mood disorder and 17% (n = 1) made significant progress. Of the patients who quit treatment prematurely, 25% (n = 2) had made significant progress by their last session with me, 63% (n = 5) had made some progress, and 12% (n = 1) had made no progress. Among the patients whom I referred to other providers, 40% (n = 2) regressed during their treatment with me, 20% (n = 1) made no progress (n = 1), 20% (n = 1) made some progress, and 20% (n = 1) made significant progress.

In my next post, I will discuss factors that are correlated with treatment completion and good outcome in these mood disorder patients.

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Mental Hygiene

This post has been inspired by the absurd number of no-shows and last-minute cancellations I have had over the past few weeks, which have afforded me both the time and the subject matter to write this blog post. Yes, it’s the holiday season, and we’re all busy and stressed. You’ve got final exams and Christmas concerts and your cousins from Iowa visiting; presents to wrap and dinners to cook and trees to trim. But mental illness does not take a vacation. If anything, people with mental illnesses struggle even more than usual around the holidays. Putting mental health treatment on the back burner for the holidays – or for any reason – is a huge mistake.

There is a pattern I have observed in a few of my patients – they disappear from treatment for several weeks or months at a time, and then call me in crisis needing an appointment ASAP. They get stabilized, start feeling better, disappear from treatment again, neglect their mental health, and show up in crisis weeks later. This is not good mental hygiene.

What is mental hygiene? I view mental hygiene as preventative medicine for your brain, just as biannual dental checkups are preventative care for your teeth and annual physical exams are preventative care for your body. Many medical crises can be averted by getting regular check-ups and aggressive treatment for medical problems as soon as they are identified, along with good nutrition and regular physical activity.

While most people take their sanity for granted, those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness cannot afford to do so. Achieving and maintaining good mental health requires a daily practice of mental hygiene which includes the following 10 components:

1.) Regular therapy sessions. Seeing a therapist regularly helps keep you accountable and on-track with your wellbeing. It is helpful to discuss your problems with someone who has a thorough knowledge of your history and can help you identify areas for continued growth. Sessions should be held at least weekly during the acute phase of illness, but may be spaced out to once or twice a month after stabilization.

2.) Adequate sleep. While individual sleep needs may vary, most adults require 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning. Adolescents require at least 9 hours. It is best to sleep a full 8-10 hours at night rather than napping during the day, which can actually increase fatigue. Before you say “well, I get 7 hours and that’s close enough,” consider this: a cumulative sleep deficit of even 30 minutes a night increases the risk of depression, impairs concentration, and contributes to daytime fatigue.

3.) Regular exercise. Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity 4-6 days per week helps to boost mood, relieve anxiety, and increase energy. New exercise trends come out every week, but it really doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do. Just move.

4.) Good nutrition. Proper nutrition involves eating, at a minimum, three balanced meals per day, with snacks in between as needed. A balanced diet incorporates a wide variety of foods including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fruits, and vegetables. I also recommend supplementing with a daily multivitamin and Omega-3 essential fatty acids. The brain requires sufficient calories in order to function properly – 20% of the calories we take in are used for brain activities – so a reduced calorie diet is harmful to your mental health. The brain is made of fat and runs on glucose, so it is not surprising that both low-fat and low-carb diets have been linked to depression.

5.) Avoidance of harmful substances. Don’t use illegal drugs. Don’t use prescription drugs unless they were prescribed for you. Don’t use over-the-counter drugs unless you really need them. I recommend avoiding alcohol if you fall into any of the following categories: you have a personal or family history of alcoholism or addiction; you take psychotropic medication; you have a chronic health condition; or you are under 21. If you do not fall into any of the aforementioned categories and you decide to drink alcohol, drink responsibly and moderately. Many people who suffer from depression find that alcohol exacerbates their depression (it is, after all, a depressant). If you drink caffeine, do so in moderation – excessive caffeine use can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia. If you need 7 cups of coffee just to get through the day, you are either sleeping too little or doing too much.

6.) A reasonable schedule. Being over-scheduled contributes to excess stress and anxiety, while being under-scheduled can lead to boredom, isolation, and depression. Many of your waking hours will be spent in structured, mandatory activities such as school or a job. Each person’s ideal balance of school/work hours will be different based upon their individual needs. That being said, no one does well working 100 hours a week or sitting at home all day for an extended period of time. Taking too many classes or working too many hours is exhausting and draining, and leaves little time for important self-care activities.

7.) Adequate “down time.” A reasonable schedule (see above) will allow for adequate sleep as well as unstructured “down time” to be by yourself, decompress, and regroup. Individual needs for down time may vary, but as a general rule I recommend 15-30 minutes per day. Down time may be spent taking a bath, reading for pleasure, watching TV, or something similar.

8.) Stress reduction activities. I recommend adopting a regular pattern of relaxation / stress-reduction activities which may include one or more of the following: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or massage.

9.) Social support. Robust mental health requires steady, reliable social support. It is important to have at least one person who is close to you whom you talk to on a regular basis. This may be
a spouse or significant other, a best friend, a parent, a sibling, or relative. It is also important to be a part of a larger community, such as a club, a church, a team, an extended family, or a close-knit workplace.

10.) Pleasurable activities. A good life involves a balance of things you “have to do” and things you “want to do.” It is the “want to do” activities that make life worth living. Spend some time each week pursuing a hobby or doing something that you really enjoy. I recommend scheduling pleasurable activities at least once per week.

Does this sound daunting? Perhaps it does if you have been neglecting your mental hygiene. But these basic principles can have a dramatic impact on your mental well being. If you want to feel good, you must treat yourself well. If you want to prevent a mental health crisis, you must practice good mental hygiene. Trust me – it is much easier and far less disruptive to prevent a mental health crisis than it is to pick up the pieces afterwards.

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Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Attachment to Theories

It is human nature to concoct theories in attempt to explain various phenomenon. As human beings, we have the capacity to problem-solve, to think critically and creatively about issues which impact us. For centuries, people have constructed theories as a means of “making sense” of things.

The need to create theories arises most often when the reason or cause of an event or circumstance is not readily apparent. For example, in ancient Greek mythology, the god Apollo rode his chariot across the sky every day, carrying the sun from east to west. Now we have modern science to explain the earth’s rotation on its axis every 24 hours, thus creating the appearance of the sun moving overhead from east to west, so the myth of Apollo is no longer necessary.

In modern times, science has replaced mythology and theory as our means of understanding various phenomena. While modern science has helped us understand many phenomenon, we still do not know what happens to us after death. This explains the popularity of major world religions which offer theories to answer these questions, such as heaven in Christianity or reincarnation in Hinduism.

In contrast to physics, chemistry, and biology, which have existed for millennia, psychology is a relatively new science. Relatively little is known about the causes of, and effective treatments for, mental illnesses. Therefore, numerous psychological theories have been proposed over the past century in attempt to explain psychological disorders. For example, in the 1950’s mental health professionals believed that autism and schizophrenia were caused by emotionally frigid “refrigerator mothers.”

With the advent of better science in recent decades, we have learned that parenting style plays no role whatsoever in the development of autism nor schizophrenia. While the precise causes of these brain disorders are unknown, we do know that autism and schizophrenia are neuro-biological disorders with strong heritability components, and that the patient’s parents can be extraordinarily valuable resources in treatment if they are given the right professional support.

While our current understanding of mental illness is in its infancy, recent scientific research has shed some light on factors that influence the development of mental illnesses. We also have some scientific data demonstrating that certain types of treatment are more effective than others for certain populations. In light of our current understanding of the etiology and effective treatment of mental illness, I am profoundly disappointed when I read about well-meaning but misinformed psychologists who cling to antiquated theories of mental illness and practice antiquated treatments.

For example, psychologist and author Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LICSW, believes that eating disorders are rooted in unhealthy or disrupted attachments to parents. In her recent Psychology Today blog post, she writes:

“For many individuals, eating disorders are attempts to fix externally what is internally vulnerable in an individual. Yet the cause of an eating disorder can often be traced back to attachment patterns that are weak or failing in childhood, which leave someone vulnerable to a whole host of self-esteem, self-worth and relationship issues later in life.”

This theory has a familiar odor. It reeks of refrigerator mothers, castration anxiety, and unconscious conflicts. In 1950, this was all we had. But now, in 2011, we know so much more.

Why do some psychologists cling to antiquated theories which have been disproven? Similarly, one may ask why many people cling to the theory of creationism when we have solid scientific evidence to support evolution. For some people, the notion that “we came from monkeys” is insulting and offensive and clashes with their existing belief system. The story of creationism is a foundation of Judeo-Christian religions, and (at least in its literal interpretation) is incongruent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The same is true with psychological theories. Many people who have been trained in psychodynamic or relational approaches feel that the new science runs counter to everything they have been taught and undermines the type of treatment they practice. They cling to their theories and defend them with religious fervor. The new science threatens their religion.

The problem here is that psychology is not a religion; it is a science. In the United States, we all enjoy freedom of religion – the freedom to believe whatever we wish and practice any religion we choose without persecution. We should not have freedom of science. As experts in the field of psychology with doctoral-level degrees, we should not have the freedom to write and publish whatever we happen to believe, and practice whatever method of treatment we wish, without accountability.

I was a graduate student relatively recently (2001 – 2008), and I was taught many things in my training that I no longer believe to be accurate. This is not a failure of my training; this is a reality of an evolving science. New developments occur in medicine all the time, and physicians who have been in practice for 20 years have had to learn and re-learn new ways of practicing as the science of medicine has evolved. This is expected. It is taken for granted by most patients.

As psychologists, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the latest scientific developments in our field and utilize our expertise to help people in need. Clinging to unproven theories, in the face of new science, is irresponsible, lazy, and potentially harmful. When challenged on their ideas, many old-school psychologists will use phrases such as “everyone’s opinion is valuable” or “can’t we agree to disagree” or “there is no right way to treat eating disorders” or “I feel unsafe.”

Here is the problem – this is not group therapy. We cannot sit around and validate one another’s feelings and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Yes, all people are equal, but all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are supported by reliable scientific evidence and others are not. There may not be one right way to treat eating disorders but there are many wrong ways, and there are methods and techniques which clearly work better than others for most people.

We must let go of unhealthy, dysfunctional attachments to old ideas. Clearly, these attachments to antiquated theories contribute to the development of unhelpful psychotherapy. Perhaps today’s unhelpful psychotherapy is an attempt to validate one’s early training.

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Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Leaving the Nest: 10 Tips for Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Insights on Insight

Patient “insight” is a much-discussed topic in psychotherapy. Most clinicians believe that developing insight is a crucial aspect of recovery from a mental illness. Many clinicians believe that insight is a necessary prerequisite for change. There are some types of treatment, such as psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, which are based entirely on the development of insight. These types of treatment are predicated on the assumption that increased insight naturally leads to positive behavior change and recovery from mental illness.

These assumptions originated with Sigmund Freud, who believed that mental illness was the result of unconscious psychic conflict. He believed by bringing this conflict into the patient’s conscious awareness, it would no longer have power over the patient and the neurotic or psychotic symptoms would disappear.

The notion that exploration into one’s innermost psyche leads to healing is alluring and romantic. It makes for great novels, memoirs, and movies. The problem is, it rarely works this way in real life. While most people suffering from mental illnesses do indeed experience tremendous inner psychological conflict, there is no evidence that this inner conflict is the cause of any mental illness or that gaining insight into the conflict will promote recovery. Insight, as discussed in psychoanalytic theory or pop psychology, refers to something along the lines of “why I am the way I am” or “why I developed this mental illness.”

There are several reasons why this type of insight alone rarely leads to recovery:

1.) Contrary to popular belief, we do not know what causes most mental illnesses. We may know what factors may trigger, perpetuate, or exacerbate the illness. For example, a loss of some sort often triggers or exacerbates depression, and dieting often triggers or exacerbates an eating disorder. We may know what types of treatment are effective for certain illnesses. For example, we know that DBT is effective in treating borderline personality disorder. But any notion about causality is, at this point in time, largely speculative. So if we don’t really know what causes mental illness, insight into the supposed cause will not promote recovery.

2.) The “insights” encouraged by the therapist are often based upon antiquated theories of mental illnesses which have no empirical support (e.g., that depression is “anger turned inward”). These theories may feel good, or make intuitive sense, or seem to validate the patient’s suffering, but that doesn’t make them accurate or useful in terms of recovery.

3.) We learn and mature emotionally through experience. Thoughts and feelings follow from behavior, not the other way around. Simply knowing why you think the way you think, or why you feel the way you feel, does not change your thoughts or feelings. What does help change your thoughts and feelings is by acting opposite to them. So, for example, if you are feeling depressed and lethargic, sitting around the house all day by yourself trying to figure out why you’re depressed doesn’t make you less depressed. However, dragging yourself off the couch to go for a brisk walk outside, and then inviting some friends over to watch a funny movie, may very well lift your spirits, at least a little bit.

4.) Our neural pathways are rewired not through developing insight, but through consistent, repetitive practice of new behaviors. You will not become a good athlete by watching sports or reading about sports. Rather, you develop and hone your athletic skills by consistent practice and physical conditioning. This is why the behavioral therapies such as CBT, DBT, ACT, and FBT are so much more effective than insight-oriented therapies such as psychodynamic therapy.

5.) Some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa, involve a symptom called anosognosia, which is a brain-based lack of insight. Because of abnormalities in brain function, individuals with anosognosia are unable to recognize that they are ill even when loved ones are extremely worried. For instance, a person with anorexia nervosa may feel great and perceive her body as normal and healthy, even when she is markedly underweight and clearly suffering from the physical and psychological effects of malnourishment. And an individual with bipolar mania may perceive himself as “on top of the world” and vehemently resist intervention as loved ones stand by and watch him make one self-destructive decision after another. Individuals with anosognosia should not be expected to seek treatment on their own, or to “want to recover,” because they will not have the insight to do so until they are well on their way to recovery.

The types of insights described above are relatively useless. However, there is another type of insight which results from successful treatment and is one of many markers of a psychologically healthy individual. Insight, as I conceptualize it, is best described by both the dictionary definition and the wikipedia definition. Thus, in order to successfully manage or overcome a mental illness, one must be able to discern the true nature of their mental illness and must understand cause and effect insofar as it applies to their symptoms. The following insights are extremely important to recovery:

1.) Insight into the fact that one has a mental illness. This element of insight includes acceptance of the fact that the illness is, to some extent, out of the person’s control, and cannot simply be wished away or overcome by willpower.

2.) Insight into the symptoms of one’s mental illness and how they manifest. This insight includes the ability to recognize signs and symptoms in oneself and the skills to eliminate, manage, or cope with the symptoms when they occur.

3.) Insight into the effects of following, or not following, the treatment plan and clinician’s recommendations. This insight involves understanding not only what the clinician is doing or recommending, but why she is doing or recommending it. That is, understanding the mechanism of change.

4.) Understanding how various choices one makes impact the course of one’s illness. For example, a person with a mood disorder needs to learn that by getting 8-9 hours of sleep nightly, exercising regularly, taking medication daily, and monitoring mood changes on a daily basis are essential to stabilizing moods. She will also need to learn that getting drunk on her 21st birthday, traveling across time zones for vacation without making up missed sleep, missing her medication for two days because she forgot to get refills on time, or burning the candle at both ends during final exams, will likely trigger a return of symptoms, even though “normal people” do these things all the time without a second thought. “But that sucks!” They exclaim. “That’s not fair!” They are correct on both counts.

I believe that a patient must develop all four of these insights during treatment. It is the clinician’s responsibility to assist the patient in developing these insights. It is also the clinician’s responsibility to ensure that the patient’s family members develop these insights during treatment, as it is often a parent or a spouse who will first notice the signs of relapse and encourage a return to treatment. This is especially true in disorders characterized by anosognosia.

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Monday, June 6th, 2011

The Price of Assumption

Recently, there have been heated debates between clinicians and parent advocates regarding the role of environmental and family issues in eating disorders. Some people insist that family dynamics and environmental factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Others bristle at the possibility. Some people say “families don’t cause eating disorders, BUT…” Others fixate on the “but” and disregard everything else.

My views on this issue are complex. Thankfully, my views became much clearer to me as I was watching an episode of the E! True Hollywood Story entitled Britney Spears: The Price of Fame. Now I am able to articulate my views on this topic in a way that most people can understand.

Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have reported that Britney Spears has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to unnamed “sources close to the pop star,” Spears was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder during her public meltdown and psychiatric hospitalization in 2008. While I have not treated Britney and thus cannot ethically make a diagnosis, I will say that her erratic behavior circa 2006-2008 could be explained by a bipolar diagnosis, and that the rate of bipolar disorder is thought to be quite high amongst people in the creative and performing arts.

Scientists now know that bipolar disorder is a neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted disease. However, rather than focusing on the neurobiology or genetics of bipolar disorder, The E! True Hollywood Story explored various influences in Britney’s life that fueled her self-destructive behavior. Clearly, this type of commentary is far more interesting to the typical E! viewer than neurobiology, my own preferences notwithstanding. Several mental health professionals were interviewed and gave their opinions as to the influence of early stardom, family problems, a stage mom, excessive fame, and extreme wealth on the pop star’s behavior. Sadly, though, the viewer is led to believe that these environmental and family issues are the cause of Britney’s downfall.

Did Britney’s family or environment cause her bipolar disorder? No. Neither family nor environment can cause a brain disorder.

Did her family or environment fuel her bipolar disorder? Yes. And here’s how: Let’s say Britney had taken a different path in life, married a plumber instead of Kevin Federline and worked as a preschool teacher instead of a pop star. Let’s say she stayed in her small Louisiana hometown, never dabbled in drugs or heavy drinking, went to bed every night at a decent hour, and maintained close, age appropriate relationships with her family and good friends, making a decent living but nothing more. Would she still have developed bipolar disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe she would have (remember, most people with bipolar disorder are not pop stars, but regular people). However, her disease would have been much more easily diagnosed and treated if she had been surrounded and supported by normal, loving people who could influence her in a positive way. As it happened, her disease was certainly protracted and exacerbated by the lifestyle of a pop star, which includes late nights, insufficient sleep, excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and endless amounts of power and money.

If Britney’s therapist had held a family session with Lynne and Jamie Spears and Kevin Federline in attempts to “explore the family dynamics which contributed to the disorder,” that would be a complete waste of time. The elder Spears’ and Mr. Federline – the very people who are in the best position to help Britney recover – would have felt subtly blamed and marginalized. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by approaching a brain disorder in this fashion.

The most ideal situation for Britney would be for her parents and K-Fed (and any other people close to her) to work together to provide family-based support to help her recover and to help eliminate any environmental or family factors which may be fueling her disease. It would be most helpful for her family members to be educated about bipolar disorder and understand that it is a biologically-based brain disease that she did not choose and that they did not cause. The family would also need to know that certain environmental factors, such as pregnancy and childbirth, stress, insufficient sleep, drugs and alcohol, medication non-compliance, or excessive emotional distress, can trigger episodes and exacerbate symptoms. The family would need to learn pro-active ways to help Britney manage her environment in a way that is most conducive to achieving mental and physical wellness.

In considering this example, it is important to bear in mind that people with bipolar disorder run the gamut from pop stars to professors to businessmen to truck drivers to homeless panhandlers. Families of people with bipolar disorder also run the gamut – some are amazing and supportive, others are average, and some are downright abusive. If treatment for bipolar disorder is to be successful, the clinician must perform a thorough evaluation of the patient and family, and the information gleaned from that assessment should be used to guide treatment decisions. A good clinician would not presume that the family of a person with bipolar disorder is dysfunctional or abusive, or that family dynamics caused or contributed to the development of the disorder. Similarly, a good clinician would not presume that the family is healthy or that there is nothing the family needs to change. Quite simply, a good clinician would not assume anything – she would simply perform an assessment and tailor her approach to the strengths, limitations, and realities of that particular patient and family, in line with the most recent evidence-based research.

Eating disorders are also neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted diseases which patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Family issues and environment certainly can fuel eating disorders by encouraging dieting or glorifying thinness, by making diagnosis more difficult or treatment less accessible, or by making recovery harder than it needs to be.

All eating disorder patients have a biological brain disease which most likely would have arisen, at some point in time and to some degree, regardless of family or environment. Some patients have family or environmental issues which are fueling their disorder, and some do not. If such familial or environmental issues exist, they usually become quite obvious if you do a thorough assessment. These family or environmental issues will need to be addressed in treatment, not because they caused the eating disorder, but because they can trigger or exacerbate symptoms and interfere with full recovery.

But if there are no obvious familial or environmental issues fueling the disorder, please don’t waste time searching for them. You aren’t doing the patient or the family any good by “being curious,” or “just exploring.” You are simply satisfying your own voyeuristic drive, as I fulfilled mine by watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Britney Spears.

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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Time after Time

“I don’t have time.”

This is an excuse I hear all too often. When I recommend a health-promoting behavior to a patient, such as sleeping at least 8 hours per night, meditating, spending quality time with family and friends, or exercising regularly, some people respond reflexively by stating that they don’t have time. Others will give a more wistful response, such as: “Oh, I would love to, I know it’s good for me, but I just don’t have the time.” There are patients who cancel their therapy appointments because they “don’t have time” to attend, and those who fail to complete their therapy homework citing lack of time. While I sympathize with the feeling, I don’t buy this excuse.

Here’s the thing: time is the great equalizer. We each have different amounts of money, different abilities, different families, and different life circumstances, but we all have the same amount of time. Every single person on this earth is given 24 hours in each day, 7 days in each week, and 52 weeks in each year. What we do with that time is up to us. Believe it or not, you have quite a bit of control over how you spend your time.

When someone claims that they don’t have time to do X, what they really mean is that X is not important enough to make time for it. When you reframe the statement this way, it sounds much more pointed and critical, yet it is startlingly accurate:

“My mental health is not important enough to me to attend weekly therapy sessions.”

“I don’t care enough about my wellbeing to make the time to exercise regularly.”

“I’m choosing not to bring my daughter to therapy every week because attending volleyball practice is more important than her recovery.”

“My family just isn’t significant enough for me to take time out of my day to be with them.”

“I’m not coming to therapy tomorrow because it’s finals week, and my grades are much more important than my recovery.”

It is all a matter of priorities. We define ourselves and create our destiny, in part, by how we choose to spend our time. People spend substantial chunks of time each day twittering, texting, facebooking, watching television, and surfing the internet. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. When used appropriately, they can be entertaining and life-enhancing. But when a college student tells me she has no time to sleep or exercise, and yet she spends two hours a day on facebook and goes out drinking with friends three nights a week, this says something about her values and priorities. When a parent claims that she “doesn’t have time” to transport her child to weekly therapy appointments, but clearly has the time to transport said child to soccer practice, voice lessons, youth group, and SAT prep classes, this too says something about how much the parent values her child’s mental health.

Most people would take time off from work or school to see their family doctor if they were sick. Most parents wouldn’t think twice about making time for their child to have chemotherapy, dialysis, surgery, or even orthodontist visits. Yet somehow, treatment for mental illness is not viewed with the same urgency. This is a huge mistake.

Individuals living with mental illness have more physical health problems than those who are mentally healthy. Depression costs society billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, not to mention suicide. Eating disorders often become chronic, disabling conditions and have mortality rates close to 20%. Schizophrenia and addiction often lead to homelessness. So why do we continue to view mental health treatment as optional or extracurricular? Why does our behavior suggest that mental health treatment is less important than work, school, sports, or facebook?

The impact of mental illness on individuals, families, and society is enormous, but the benefits of good mental health are immense and immeasurable. Improved mental health means increased productivity, reduced stress, more rewarding relationships, improved physical wellbeing, and overall satisfaction with life.

Achieving and sustaining good mental health is not merely a matter of attending therapy appointments, just as achieving physical health requires far more than visits to your doctor. Successful treatment for mental illness involves significant time, energy, and effort outside the therapist’s office. Many types of mental illness come with a life-long predisposition, so sufferers must be ever mindful of controlling symptoms and preventing relapse, even after complete recovery. Developing good self-care habits, completing therapy homework assignments, and creating a lifestyle conducive to overall wellbeing are all part of a holistic approach to mental wellness.

Think carefully about how you spend your time. Ask yourself if the way you spend your time reflects your true values and priorities. If mental health is a priority for you, don’t just say it – LIVE it – and the benefits of good mental health will be yours to enjoy.

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