The Role of Medication in Eating Disorder Recovery

The focus in psychiatry in the last couple of decades has switched to psychopharmacology. The combination of the burgeoning field of brain science and the powerful draw of the pharmaceutical industry lured budding psychiatrists from the world of psychoanalysis into neurotransmitters and SSRI's. Although there are pockets of devoted psychoanalysts and therapists in the country, psychiatry has been increasingly pigeonholed into a drug dispensing field. 

That message is very clear to people searching for help with mental health concerns. Many patients express surprise that any psychiatrists do more than write prescriptions, even when that pertains to treating people with eating disorders. 

Not infrequently, new patients with longstanding chronic eating disorders search for help online to make a new, brave attempt at health and recovery. More often than not, the appeal to expose themselves again to the pain and challenge of trying to get well is the possibility of a new effective medication.

When I see people in this situation, I try to convey the message that there have been no breakthroughs in the treatment for eating disorders. Recovery is still hard work and requires the patience to weather the ups and downs of learning how to eat again and to manage the tenacious eating disorder thoughts, but I quickly learn that these patients have already been down that road. I find it hard to deter them from looking for the magic bullet, namely a new medication cure. 

Despite the promises made in print ads, photos of people magically cured by a drug and the occasional unlikely anecdote, medications do not provide immediate relief from mental illness, especially from the suffering of an eating disorder. If a medication can ease anxiety or depression somewhat during recovery, then it might help open the door to improving the symptoms. It is crucial to understand the value of medications in recovery and not be wooed by false promises. 

That being said, finding the path back into treatment can very much start someone towards recovery. My goal is to realistically chart that path and help the person who bravely stepped back into treatment to use that momentum to make real changes. Taking the step to seek help, in any way that transpires, is paramount and something to be proud of.

Disappointment that medication is not a panacea does not have to deter that person from a new step towards wellness. Recovery can come at any age and at any stage of the illness. Hope does not have to hinge on a magic medication but instead on the real decision to re-enter treatment.

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