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Do I need to go to the hospital for eating disorders treatment?


Should you choose inpatient or outpatient treatment for an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are not like other mental health issues people face, such as depression or anxiety, which can often be remedied by once-a-week visits to a qualified and empathic therapist.  Complete treatment for eating disorders requires the work of a team of professionals who can treat the whole person.

There are two ways most patients receive access to this team of professionals.  Treatment that takes place outside of the hospital or residential setting is known as “outpatient treatment,” and treatment occurring inside of a hospital or residential care setting is known as “inpatient treatment.”  While there are many advantages to inpatient treatment programs, there can be hidden disadvantages.  


What to Expect at the Hospital

When a person goes to the hospital for eating disorder treatment, they receive 24/7 support, which includes:

• Psychotherapy several times a week;

• Nutrition counseling several times a week;

• Group therapy every day;

• Visits to the psychiatrist at least once per week;

• Meal planning sessions;

• Meal monitoring;

• Other therapeutic supports such as equine therapy, yoga or body movement therapy, art therapy, etc.


Things to Consider with Inpatient Treatment

The best inpatient eating disorder treatment programs can truly be lifesavers; however, there are two major problems that can arise:

1) They can be extremely expensive, sometimes even if you have health insurance. And if you don’t have health insurance, then they are highly unaffordable.

2) They usually do not adequately prepare you for going back to REAL LIFE (which for most people does not consist of daily therapy, yoga sessions, and not having to go to work or school!).

So while there are certain advantages to inpatient care, these solutions often serve as a temporary patch to a large, complicated dilemma.


An Introduction to Outpatient Treatment

The best model for eating disorders treatment that does not take place in a hospital or residential setting is the outpatient team treatment model.  This outpatient treatment team approach essentially mirrors the setup of a hospital program, but allows much more freedom and less disruption of your life.

If you secure a quality outpatient treatment team quickly, there is a very good chance you can avoid inpatient treatment.  The emphasis, note, is on “team.”  If you go to only one provider without putting together a team, you are setting yourself up for failure in your recovery.  Strong words, yes, but they’re true.


Studies show that people with eating disorders have a better prognosis and recover faster when they are working with a treatment team similar to what they would have in a hospital setting.  


A diagnosis of an eating disorder is not an automatic life sentence of misery for you.  By taking the right steps from the start, you are very likely to recover.  However, if you do not get help, and the right kind, you could be sentencing yourself to months, or even years, of struggling with an eating disorder.  In fact, the faster you secure quality treatment, the more likely you are to recover fully and live a happy and healthy life without being obsessed with food and weight.

TIP: Currently, up to 20% of individuals suffering from an eating disorder will do so for the rest of their lives.  This staggering statistic would be greatly reduced if the person received the right form of treatment from the start.  


Benefits of Outpatient Treatment

In addition to the comparative cost advantage, there are further benefits of quality outpatient care:

• You will usually still be able to attend school or work, at least part-time;

• You do not have to pay for accommodations and travel to the inpatient hospital, which is unlikely to be located in your town;

• You will be creating a team that will always be available in town if you relapse, so you can get back on track quickly;

• Remember that an inpatient stay is an emergency measure that is most often used to stabilize a person in grave physical danger.  You still have to learn how to manage the stresses of your life when you leave the hospital.  This is why the most dangerous time for eating disorder patients is immediately after they leave the hospital and return to their regular lives.  If there are no supports in place when they return, they are likely to fall back;

• One of the most important therapeutic advantages of using an outpatient treatment team rather than going to a hospital is that you will learn how to manage the stresses that triggered the eating disorder in real life. You will then be able to practice the techniques in your own home, while you are still in school or work and engaging in your social life.



The Body Image Counseling Center offers full outpatient team treatment services, including nutrition counseling, psychotherapy, and regular consults with the patient’s medical providers.  If you’re still not sure which approach is the best for your situation, just contact us for a free 15 minute consult, and we will help you determine whether inpatient or outpatient treatment is the way to go in your recovery. 

Another parting tip: we never take on a new patient who has an eating disorder until their primary doctor gives us a “medical OK” that they are physically safe to be in an outpatient treatment setting.  If a therapist or dietitian does not include regular communication with your doctor in your treatment plan, look elsewhere for help!


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