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Four Steps To Help Get Ready for Eating Disorder Treatment

Residential treatment for eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, ARFID, OSFED, or anorexia nervosa comes in many varieties.They can range from virtual programs (spurred on by the COVID pandemic and resulting social distancing protocols) to in-person day treatment to partial hospitalization. However, although the programs often differ greatly in their scope, incoming clients should be ready to consider the possibility of entering a residential facility.

Putting aside school or work to devote several weeks or more to residential treatment is not an easy choice. However, psychiatric illnesses sometimes become severe enough to put an individual’s happiness, health, and even their life at risk. This warrants making every effort to recover and rehabilitate. It’s essentialto prepare for this change in their lives by learning more about what residential eating disorder treatment entails. Here are four steps a new residential client and their families can get ready for treatment and recovery.

1. Talk with the treatment providers before admitting

Residential treatment can be imposing; you’re taking a major step in recovery, but you’re also removing yourself from your daily life for a month or more. Don’t stress too much – a bit of fear is totally normal. Thankfully, the staff at an eating disorder treatment center is used to helping nervous first-timers take their first steps to recovery. Most facilities have dedicated admissions specialists who can outline the programs and help relieve potential clients’ fears which means they are capable of sharing the details of their program. They say knowing is half the battle – the admissions specialists will be able to provide that knowledge to the potential client and their families.

Sometimes a person about to enter treatment might think the staff finds it bothersome to spend time answering questions – nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they will welcome such questions. Potential clients should ask about several things; among many others, they should ask about meal times and structures, exercise programs, what kinds of therapy to expect, living and bedroom situations, whether they will have a roommate, what kind of medical and psychiatric support will be available, and what privileges and privacy are allowed to the residents.

Most treatment centers can offer an information packet to upcoming residents to check out, or offer a virtual or in-person tour. The information packet should contain all the fundamental information that one needs to know about the program that they are going to attend. Of course, there will be more questions in virtually every situation.The admission specialists or other staff can provide some clarification on the phone, but follow-up calls might be necessary to get to the bottom of more specialized or personal questions.

2. Make a list of questions to go over with the admissions team

It can be a little overwhelming to process all the possible information in one sitting. Before or after your first call with an admissions specialist, you should make a list of questions you have about residential eating disorder treatment. Some examples and FAQs include:

  • How long is the program? 30 days, longer, or a case-by-case basis?
  • What are the residential rooms like – are there roommates, shared bathrooms, etc.?
  • How often can the resident expect to be able to visit with loved ones?
  • What therapeutic methods are available?
  • What kind of medical support is there?
  • What is a day like at the facility for residents?
  • What is the surrounding location like?
  • What should the upcoming resident bring with them to the facility?
  • How does the staff at the facility measure progress in the program?

You should also consider specialty questions. For instance, you may wish to know if the center is female-only or adolescent-only, or whether the program is geared to service LGBTQ populations. If the program is serving a specific group, those attending might want to verify exactly how the process works—like if it is a program for women, does that mean that all the staff will be women as well?

It can be helpful to write out a list of questions beforehand, possibly during the time while the upcoming resident and their family ponder the treatment program. When they feel like they have a comprehensive list of questions, they can contact the program to get the answers they seek.

3. Make sure the person attending treatment asks questions, especially if they’re adolescent

Often, the one who is attending a residential eating disorder treatment program is being helped by loved ones to find their ideal center and prepare for recovery. Because eating disorders often develop during early adolescence, it’s not unusual for the upcoming resident to be a teenager or young adult. In these situations, his or her voice needs to be heard above all others. Although parents might tend to dominate the questioning, and financial considerations will be their burden, the most important person in the entire process is the client.

Whoever is going to be attending the program should have the opportunity to ask all the questions that they want to ask, preferably directly to the treatment center staff. They should be encouraged to create their own list of questions that they can then ask the treatment center staff. By ensuring that the one who is attending the program gets the information they want and need, the family can ease the transition to the residential facility.

By encouraging the upcoming resident to speak with the staff they will be interacting with later, the family can help the individual feel more comfortable with those that will treat them. Questions and conversations can be a wonderful ice breaker for the upcoming stay.

4. Prepare yourself for change

Most of this advice has been of a practical nature – what to expect, what questions to ask, etc. Of course, these aspects are important, but with all the preparation involved with getting into a residential eating disorder program, it can be easy to lose sight of what recovery is all about. Fundamentally, eating disorder treatment strives to address and resolve a serious mental health disorder. This means that many things about your life will change – for the better, to be sure, but change is never easy.

Complicating this is the fact that eating disorders, like all mental health disorders, have a tendency to resist change. The distorted thinking they bring around tells the individual that they’re doing the right thing, the healthy thing, the only thing that’s best.  That makes the prospect of leaving the eating disorder behind difficult to face for many people. The best way to get past this trepidation is to remind yourself, or remind your loved one if they’re the one going in for treatment, why you’re doing this.

Eating disorders carry with them serious health risks as well as the more obviously psychological ones. The stereotype of an underweight person on a feeding tube is usually associated with anorexia nervosa, but any eating disorder can have severe consequences as well. Aside from weight loss (or with some types of eating disorder, weight gain), anemia, gastrointestinal issues, bone density loss, heart problems, and endocrine issues can result. Self-harm, suicide, and substance abuse are also common co-occurring symptoms of many eating disorders. Because of these factors, treatment is not simply a type of therapy – it’s literally a life-saving process.

Keeping that goal in mind can help a person prepare to enter treatment and stay motivated. It’s never an easy process. Many therapists recommend holding space for grief over ending their disordered eating and thinking patterns. For months or years, your disorder has been telling you how to feel about your body and how to eat. It’s natural to feel a sense of loss for something that’s been a part of your life for so long – but trusting in yourself and your treatment team can make the difference between suffering and attaining a better life.

Reach Out – Eating Disorder Recovery Is More Accessible Than Ever

In recent years, eating disorders and recovery have become more discussed and more present in the minds of the public. Rather than being a topic for jokes, the struggle of people with distorted body image and eating patterns are treated as public health concerns. That makes getting treatment more accessible and inclusive than ever. Reach out to your therapist or doctor to get started. They can point you to a specialized eating disorder treatment program. If residential treatment is warranted, it’s there for you.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
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