Taboos in discussing mental health are lifting and we hear more from people who have been impacted by eating disorders. It’s a disease we need to know more about because it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Eating disorders are happening to the people we know and love, people we work and volunteer with, and our neighbors. This should catch our attention, since one person dies from an eating disorder every 62 minutes.
Professional treatment providers are past the days of viewing family, friends, and community as the root of an eating disorder. Rather, these relationships are acknowledged as potentially the best allies and advocates for recovery. On day one of eating disorder treatment, we ask: “Do you have any family or friends that will be involved in your recovery? Can we contact them?” This is an essential part of treatment since they create a piece in the recovery process. But then how do we strengthen these connections when a patient is out-of-state for treatment?
When a patient has experienced abuse, assault, or trauma at the hands of family, it is a detriment to the patient for that offender to be involved in treatment. Even hostility and high levels of tension by parent figures towards a patient in recovery has a direct relation to a patient ending treatment early–and having poor treatment outcomes. Many families and friends may be experiencing compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout. These are not game-enders though; these issues can be addressed through family therapy in treatment.
As a patient stabilizes and improves, we start lowering their level of care. This may be a step from in-patient to residential, or to partial hospitalization, and eventually to intensive out-patient programming. As the level of care decreases, the social interaction of the patient increases. It may start with a four hour pass out of the hospital to have dinner with a family member. It may be weekly attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous. Or it may be a Dallas bucket-list trip to Six Flags. The idea is to have one foot in treatment and the other foot in life. Patients are often convinced that they cannot live a recovered life once out of treatment. Stepping back into family time, friend outings, and community events while maintaining symptom control through connection to a treatment program can deconstruct this belief. Connection to community proves that a recovered life is possible.
How do we get that golden ratio of family, friends, and community within arm’s reach of a patient in treatment? Local treatment programs. According to research, there is demonstrable difference in treatment that includes a patient’s loved ones showing up to family therapy, as opposed to a phone call with a family member to receive updates. The most important difference is the patient developing a belief that a recovered life is possible outside of treatment, family and friends are engaged, and the community has played an active role in the recovery process. A recovered life is now possible because the patient has already been living it.
This is exemplified at Texas Health Dallas Eating Disorders Program. They are one place that offers full-service care for in-patients, even for those with high risk medical needs, residential for extended stays, and partial hospitalization and intensive out-patient programs. Recovery begins on day one, and the best path forward for a Dallas-Fort Worth patient is to have support through their professional treatment team and their best allies: family, friends, and community.
Ashley Gilmore leads Texas Health Resources’ Binge Eating Disorder IOP program. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has served the Dallas community for over 13 years in hospitals and nonprofit agencies.