This time of year is a common one for high school and college students to first be diagnosed with an eating disorder. The stress of the end of the first semester of a new school year can exacerbate already existing tendencies to turn to food for comfort and lead to a true disorder. For college students being on their own for the first time is also a reason for the descent into more severe eating behaviors.
Families now confronted with getting help for their child can be overwhelmed by the maze of treatment and the confounding task of getting adequate help for a sick child.
The first step for any family is to find a trusted clinician knowledgeable about several components of these illnesses. The person must be versed in the diagnosis of an eating disorder, capable of assessing the severity of the symptoms, connected enough to assemble a team and aware of the positives and negatives of all treatment modalities.
Beware of practitioners who solely urge one form of treatment, especially if that option is a hospital or residential treatment program. That choice can frequently be best for someone newly diagnosed, but the proliferation and directed marketing of new programs can influence clinical decisions and cloud clinical judgment.
Programs can lead to quick return of adequate nutrition but also can trigger a quick relapse for two reasons. The first is that programs tacitly promise an immediate cure. Without a treatment team back home, it is easy to turn to the residential program for guidance even after discharge and not find ways to reconnect with the world. Second, patients can wish to relapse to return to the safety provided by living in a caring and nurturing bubble protected from the stress of life. Instead of getting better, it perpetuates the desire to hide away from the difficult obstacles of recovery ahead.
The important step as a family is to assemble a treatment team of experienced clinicians whom the family can trust. Even if that team quickly decides upon residential treatment, the family can focus efforts on recovery in the real world. Any inpatient setting is only a stopover to improve nutritional status and health, not a place for full recovery. The family can also turn to the team for support and ensure the primary support is accessible in daily life and not just the duration of a residential stay.
Last it is important to know full recovery is the goal and very attainable. The myth that no one gets better from an eating disorder is pervasive in our society. Getting the right help for the patient, learning about how to provide family support and coming together as a family all are crucial to help the child get well.