Finding the Needle in the Haystack of Eating Disorder Care-Providers
By Abigail Natenshon MA, LCSW, GCFP
I recently received an email from the mother of an 11-year-old child which spoke poignantly to the needs of parents seeking expert professional care for their child. Recognizing the pressing nature of her venture, this mother was painfully aware that she had no idea about what to look for, or how to identify the qualities of a truly expert practitioner. She wrote:
“My problem is that we live in Tokyo in Japan and I am unsure of how to find a professional who can help us. If we choose just any psychiatrist or psychologist, I am afraid that they may make the problem worse if they are not experienced in eating disorders. Do you have any advice which you could give me as to how to find help?”
Though parents can feel wholly confident putting their child in the hands of highly trained mental health generalists for other conditions, the treatment of eating disorders requires uniquely skilled and knowledgeable professionals. Eating disorders are complex, diverse, and multi-faceted diseases, affecting every aspect of personality and life function, including emotions and behaviors, cognition and mood, nutrition and physiology, relationships and self-image. Treatment leaves little margin for error; if not dealt with in a timely and effective manner, these diseases are debilitating and can even be fatal. When treated properly, full recovery can be anticipated in 70-80 percent of cases.
The Therapist’s Treatment Style
Expert caregivers need to be eclectic and versatile in what they know and how they use themselves in approaching treatment for an eating disorder. Within the course of treatment, effective eating disorder practitioners will show themselves to be:
“Big picture” thinkers, with the capacity to hold fast to the vision of a far-reaching recovery even as they systematically attend to the small details of ongoing treatment.
Integrationists, with a firm grasp on the wider implications of disease, and functioning as part of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. Practitioners need broad-based diagnostic acumen, diverse practice skills, and the capacity and willingness to access varied treatment support resources.
Activists, urging parents and families to participate in treatment, educating clients, and shepherding the healing process forward.
Bottom-liners, with an outcome-driven approach, expecting and demanding that the recovery progress keeps up with the pace of a disease that is perpetually on the move. (If the patient is not getting better, you can be assured she is getting worse.)
Loving caretakers, who are unafraid to use themselves creatively and openly as strong connectors, and who build self-esteem and inspire the motivation to heal.
The Initial Telephone Inquiry
Once a parent has recognized a problem and confronted the child, the next challenge is to find a practitioner who can effectively connect with child and family, and direct the recovery process. The best referrals will come from people you know: friends, your child’s pediatrician, school counselors, or from national eating disorder organizations such as NEDA or ANAD. In addition, a reliable and internationally-based referral source is the Internet, through web sites such as www.EDReferral.com or www.Find-a-Therapist.com. In assessing the qualifications of potential therapists, the knowledgeable parent needs to be prepared to conduct an informal telephone interview. Your child’s practitioner should be willing to engage with you on the phone to answer your questions, thereby beginning the education process. This first meaningful interchange should reveal elements of the therapist’s personality, treatment approach, and willingness to be forthcoming, inclusive, and educative.
Parents need to avoid the generalist practitioner who readily admits to not knowing how to treat eating disorders, but who assures successful outcomes anyway.
The phone conversation might begin with the question, “Is this a good time for me to ask you a few questions?” If not, make arrangements to call back at a more convenient time. Don’t hesitate to ask about his or her professional background and experience in treating eating disorders. Notice whether the clinician is listening closely to you. The best therapists have a way of listening with a “third” ear, of providing answers not only to the questions you ask, but also to those that you may not yet have the words or knowledge to formulate. The therapist should give you the sense that by becoming your ally, he or she is becoming your child’s recovery advocate. Expert caregivers will be knowledgeable and educative, caring and forthcoming, imparting knowledge, offering a sense of where you and your child are in the disease and recovery processes, and of what needs to happen next, laying out alternatives for care provision.
Questions to Guide Your Inquiry:
• Ask about the benefits of outpatient therapy versus treatment in a hospital or day program.
• Inquire about the therapist’s treatment style or philosophy and then listen for such words as eclectic, cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, relationship-oriented, and family-systems based. Does this person have a philosophy of eating disorder treatment that focuses on both the dysfunctional behaviors and the emotions driving them?
• Does this person offer pointers about what to say to your child, and how to say it to express your concerns and convince your child to accept professional care?
• Does this person recognize medical issues that may be serious and require immediate attention or hospitalization? Does this person suggest that your child be seen by a medical doctor for an evaluation as a first priority of care?
• Does this person collaborate with skilled professionals as part of a treatment team? If not, the task of creating such a team may fall to you as the parent. Do you get the impression that you can count on this person for cooperation and guidance?
• Does this person request that you procure the services of a nutritionist for your child, and possibly a psychopharmacologist where needed, as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to care?
• Will you and your spouse be invited to join your child in family therapy, becoming mentors and advocates of the recovery process?
• Does this person work with insurance companies? Does he/she offer pointers about how to secure optimized insurance coverage and is he/she willing to intervene in your favor with insurance companies? Does this person offer a sliding pay scale if needed?
• Does this person reassure you that eating disorders are highly curable diseases if treated in a timely and effective fashion?
Your Child Needs You Now More Than Ever
Depending on your child’s age and the severity of her eating disorder, she is likely to be too ill and/or too young to make responsible decisions about self-care on her own. Despite age or life stage, your child needs your assistance now more than ever. Don’t fall victim to the commonly held misconception that a parent’s appropriate intervention is synonymous with interference, or that your participation in family treatment violates your child’s independence, compromising confidentiality or privacy rights.
If a therapist implies that generic therapy techniques are sufficient to heal an eating disorder, or that parents are to blame for their child’s disease or should “butt out” of the recovery process, seek help elsewhere. An eating disorder can easily send you and your child off track as it speaks in her voice, threatens, intimidates, and resists your efforts. Make sure you choose an expert caregiver who can guide you in the right direction. Your educated response and sound judgment will make the difference.
About the Author
Abigail Natenshon, MA LCSW, GCFP, is a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders. Her first book, When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder, is an excellent resource for parents. Portions of this article are drawn from her second book, Doing What Works; Strategies for the Successful Treatment of Eating Disorders, which she is currently writing. Visit www.empoweredparents.com.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2007 Volume 5, Number 2
©2007 Gürze Books