8 Things You Should Look For in Eating Disorder Treatment for Adolescents and Young Adults

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Recognising that a young person needs eating disorder treatment is one of the most important steps in the recovery process – especially when the young person also recognises and accepts the need for professional help. But finding the right recovery program isn’t always easy. 

Within healthcare systems, waiting lists can be long and specialist services may be limited. Private services can also be lacking and it may be difficult to know what to look for and what to avoid.

Understanding how to choose effective eating disorder treatment for young people can make a big difference in their recovery journey. In this blog, we outline some important characteristics of successful, reliable treatment programs that can guide your decision. We help you to understand which questions to ask – and which answers to look for – so that parents and families can find the best treatment for their children.

1. A Facility That Specialises in Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that require specialist treatment. This means that doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nutritionists, and other team members should specialise in treating eating disorders and hold the necessary qualifications.  

Treatment centres also need the medical facilities and equipment required to keep young people safe during the recovery process.

Treatment centres that only offer eating disorder treatment as a small part of their programs are unlikely to have the experience and expertise necessary to offer the most effective treatment. As a general rule, in a general psychiatric treatment program, at least half of the resources should be dedicated to eating disorder care. 

Remember that there is no such thing as a ‘mild’ eating disorder: all eating disorders are serious and require specialist support, regardless of a young person’s weight, body shape, or duration of illness.

Ask for Specialist Training and Qualifications

Some specialist eating disorder qualifications to look out for are IAEDP, CBT-E, FBT, FREED, and MBT-ED. Don’t be shy to ask for certificates and registration numbers to check that the qualifications are valid. 

2. Inpatient Treatment Vs Outpatient Treatment

Young people with eating disorders may benefit from both inpatient and outpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment is when a young person stays at a residential centre for the duration of their recovery program. In outpatient treatment, adolescents and young adults continue to live at home, attending intensive outpatient programs (with several hours of sessions a day) or regular appointments (sometimes once a week) with therapists and other professionals.

When you’re deciding between inpatient and outpatient treatment, it’s best to speak with a mental health professional. By applying their experience and expertise to each young person’s circumstances, they can help to ascertain the level of care that keeps a young person safe, provides effective treatment, and meets their other needs.

3. A Treatment Program Dedicated to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Support

There is a widespread agreement among experts that children and adolescents require dedicated mental health services that meet their developmental needs. Young people’s brains are developing until their mid-20s, meaning that children, teenagers, and adults experience mental health disorders – and respond to treatment – in different ways. 

Young people also face particular social and personal challenges, whether it’s moving schools, facing exams, or exploring parts of their identity.

Moreover, research suggests that young people may be more likely to:

  • be using mental health services for the first time, or have families and friends who have never encountered them before
  • live with more than one mental health condition
  • have relapses, because of a lack of knowledge about how to manage their condition
  • act impulsively, including disruptive behaviour and self-harm

It’s important that treatment programs for eating disorders and other mental health conditions reflect these needs. Mental health services for young people should create an environment that is welcoming to children and adolescents and not stigmatising. They should be led and implemented by professionals who specialise in child and adolescent psychiatry and psychology, ensuring they provide effective and comprehensive care.

4. Programs that Address the Underlying Causes of Disordered Eating Behaviours

Eating disorders are about more than just food. Disordered eating behaviours often develop as a way to cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Young people may focus on food to avoid confronting inner distress by hiding these experiences, sometimes from themselves.

Underlying issues like perfectionism, interpersonal difficulties, and low self-esteem often contribute to and maintain eating disorders. They can also be triggered by co-occurring mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as past experiences of trauma.

When you’re seeking eating disorder treatment, choose programs that address and treat the underlying causes of eating disorders, rather than focusing only on eating patterns and body weight. Look for programs that treat co-occurring disorders alongside eating problems and include trauma-focused approaches from the start of a young person’s recovery plan.

5. Eating Disorder Treatment that Includes Comprehensive Follow-up Care

The end of a treatment program can be challenging for young people and their families. Young people may be worried about continuing recovery with less support and ending relationships with therapists. After residential programs, they may be apprehensive about returning to the stresses and challenges of everyday life without falling back into old patterns.

Follow-up care (or aftercare) plays a vital role in supporting these transitions so that young people can continue their recovery journey. It might involve continued outpatient sessions with local therapists, online or phone-based recovery support, or recovery coaching. It aims to keep young people feeling supported and cared for as they keep moving forward – both with their recovery and other aspects of their lives.

6. Evidence-Based Treatment Approaches

In recent decades, researchers, scientists, and medics have developed several treatment approaches proven to help individuals recover from eating disorders. When choosing treatment programs, look for ones that use and centre these approaches.

Some evidence-based treatments for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other feeding and eating disorders include:

  • Family-based therapy
  • CBT-E (enhanced cognitive-behavioural therapy)
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Nutritional counselling
  • Integrated trauma-based therapy

7. A Program that Successfully Balances Movement and Exercise

Balancing the benefits of exercise and movement with rest and physical recovery can be one of the more difficult parts of eating disorder treatment. Exercise and movement usually play an important part in mental well-being, helping to produce and balance brain chemicals that regulate mood, sleep, and other functions. 

However, for young people with eating disorders, exercise can take away from their already low energy intake. It can also already be, or become, a way for young people to control their energy intake instead of diet restriction.

Programs that successfully balance movement and exercise usually strictly limit movement during the first stages of recovery. During this time, when energy intake is very low, young people need to use all their energy to survive, repair, and recover.

As treatment progresses, exercise and movement may slowly be introduced. This might include yoga therapy or trauma-informed yoga therapy, a therapeutic practice that may provide an alternative, healthy coping mechanism while reducing baseline anxiety and distress. As exercise and movement are introduced, it’s important to address the way that young people perceive exercise in therapy sessions.

8. A Centre that Can Provide Medical Interventions, Prevent Emergencies, and Act Quickly in High-Risk Cases

Eating disorder treatment facilities should be fully equipped to intervene if young people experience medical complications. Some medical complications associated with eating disorders require a rapid response. These include a low pulse rate, body temperature, or blood pressure.

To keep young people safe, inpatient facilities that treat high-risk cases should provide 24-hour professional medical support. They also need monitoring equipment, intensive care provision, and other relevant medical care. In some cases, centres might arrange immediate transport to a nearby hospital to provide the necessary support.

The Wave Clinic: Setting the Global Standard for Eating Disorder Treatment

The Wave Clinic is a private eating disorder treatment centre just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Our world-leading programs combine exceptional clinical care with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, supporting young people to plan and build fulfilling futures.

Our residential and outpatient centre is dedicated to the needs of teenagers, adolescents, and young adults, providing specialist support with years of experience and unequalled expertise. 

The Wave is a Global Centre of Excellence for the treatment of eating disorders, led and implemented by a team of highly qualified professionals. Every member of our staff, including housekeeping, kitchen, and auxiliary teams, is also trained in the fundamentals of eating disorders. This means that every person our young people interact with understands how to use language, observation, and practical skills in supportive ways.

Our treatment centre is equipped to cater for young people who require all levels of care, from the most high-risk cases to those at a lower risk. Our Indigo Program offers twenty-four-hour professional medical support, intensive care beds, and all the required equipment to keep young people safe. Other adolescents and young adults may stay in our main house, collectively living with others in a supported yet independent environment.

The Wave sets the standard for young people’s mental health support, offering a unique whole-person approach that focuses on building futures. If you’d like to find out more about our programs, get in touch today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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