Getting treatment for an eating disorder is easier than it used to be; there are options available for most conditions and people have more choices that take insurance than ever before. And although the conversations that lead to recovery might be hard, when you or a loved one is ready to go in for eating disorder treatment, you won’t have to wait or go through an arduous search to find the right options.

However, you or your loved one still have a choice to make – is residential or day treatment (also known as outpatient) the better choice for your eating disorder recovery journey?

Outlining Your Choices for Eating Disorder Treatment Centers

When you begin to be concerned about a loved one’s or your relationship with eating, food, and body image and think there may be evidence of an eating disorder, it may be hard to know where to start. When searching for treatment for an eating disorder, one of the first decisions the family and other loved ones will have to make involves they take the more extreme step of entering residential treatment or whether they should employ the flexibility of outpatient treatment. By taking a detailed look at each of these options separately, making the final decision becomes easier because it often becomes clear during this process that one or the other treatment option is best.

Start with Your Family Doctor or a General Medical Provider

If your loved one is showing extreme weight loss, compulsive exercise, purging, or other signs of disordered eating like frequent dieting, an irrationally flawed body image, a good place to start is to contact your regular medical provider if you have one. Although they don’t usually specialize in eating disorders, most general practitioners are familiar enough with the signs to recommend an expert if they can’t make the diagnosis themselves. Eating disorders often require complex and specialized training to treat effectively, so they will likely recommend an eating disorder treatment facility.

Medical providers may have several reasons for recommending either residential or outpatient treatment. Usually, the severity of the disorder and any physical complications will dictate the doctor’s recommendation. Their knowledge is important of course, but the fact remains that family members or loved ones can also provide valuable information.

For example, people close to the potential client might be aware of co-occurring psychological issues that the doctor doesn’t know about,or if they have substance abuse issues that might affect treatment.This combination of knowledge, education, and experience from the medical professionals and family members or loved ones should both be utilized when choosing between the different levels of treatment for eating disorders.

Residential Treatment for Eating Disorders

When it comes to deciding between residential and outpatient treatment for eating disorders, first we have to define what those terms mean. Residential treatment is the more intensive of the two options. Residential treatment is, as it sounds, a situation where a person lives at the eating disorder treatment facility, focusing entirely on their recovery. There is no “standard” amount of time required for a residential program, but many programs begin at 30 days.

Residential treatment allows for round the clock supervision, which can be essential for people that need medical or psychiatric support, or who have particularly deep-seated disordered eating behaviors. Residential treatment is also preferred for people with co-occurring disorders that require treatment. These disorders include substance abuse or a history of self-harm.

It’s an unfortunate fact that thoughts of self-harm or suicide are much more common in individuals with eating disorders than in people without them. Of course, suicidal ideation is a serious situation that must be addressed during treatment to help the individual fully recover their healthy self.

Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders

Outpatient or day treatment is more flexible and less intensive than residential, although this doesn’t imply that it’s in any way inferior. With outpatient options like IOP or PHP, the client attends regular sessions at an office or outpatient facility, but they live at home and continue their work or school schedules. Although it can be effectively employed as a stand-alone program, one of the most compelling applications for day treatment is as a step-down from the more intensive treatment that residential care offers.

For many young people making the transition from residential care back into their home lives, re-entry proves an intimidating challenge. Utilizing outpatient treatment as a bridge, safety net, and support system to help teenagers navigate as they ease back into the reality of society and all of its challenges is a great way to provide continuity of care.

Outpatient or day treatment programs usually include most of the same types of therapy as residential programs, including group therapy sessions, family therapy, and evidence-based methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Although the sessions are less frequent and regimented as residential treatment, they are usually just as effective in advancing a client’s recovery.

Treatment Methods Used at Both Residential and Outpatient Treatment Centers

The most important thing anyone should look for in an eating disorder treatment program, residential or day treatment, is an individualized treatment plan. The intake staff should perform a thorough assessment of the client’s emotional, medical, and psychiatric status, and design their plan accordingly. Every aspect of the participant’s treatment plan is geared toward recovery, either physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. Some circumstances may dictate the need for the more intensive care afforded by residential treatment, and others may allow for the flexibility of day treatment.

In addition, to talk therapy like group and CBT sessions, movement is an important part of any treatment plan at a residential treatment center. For those who use excessive exercise as a method of controlling their weight, it’s essential to employ yoga and other mindful movement techniques as an alternative to compulsive, self-destructive behaviors.

A Recovered Life Is Worth It, Either Outpatient or Residential

Beyond therapy, various “life-enhancing activities” are also useful in helping clients restore a healthier lifestyle free of their eating disorder. For example, exposure therapy at a grocery store and then at the kitchen might find a client planning, cooking, and eating a meal that is not only delicious but also nutritious. This is carried out under the helpful guidance and support of certified dietitians and other nutritional staff.

This kind of real-world exposure to situations centered on food and eating does more than help the clients build skills related to food, but helps them prepare themselves to deal with these stressors when they leave either kind of treatment. This kind of hands-on treatment modality gives participants the confidence she can accomplish this goal as well as the tools to do so.

Choosing Care Near or Far

For many friends and family members who are considering if an inpatient or outpatient treatment center for eating disorders is best for their loved one, the distance may be a factor. Outpatient treatment centers are often located within the community where the family lives or else within a short drive. Residential centers, on the other hand, tend to be located some distance away. This distance and separation from their usual circumstances can be freeing; they may find a new perspective when removed from their family and friends for a little while. Without the distractions of their community and worries about what is happening outside the walls of their treatment center, they are simply able to focus on getting better and making a full recovery.