Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, treatment can often mean working with several qualified practitioners. Some people will benefit from stand-alone therapies, which involve working with only one professional, while others will need a multidisciplinary approach with help from multiple professionals.
Who can help manage and treat an eating disorder?
GPs and Local Doctors
Although General Practitioners (GP) may not be formally trained in distinguishing the presence of an eating disorder, they are a good ‘first base’ if you have concerns about yourself or someone you care for. GPs can:
- Talk through the signs and symptoms of the eating disorder with you
- Provide you with additional information about the eating disorder
- Refer you to an eating disorder specialist for further help, diagnosis and treatment
Paediatricians are often involved in the treatment of children and adolescents suffering from eating disorders. Paediatricians can:
- Speak to children and adolescents at their level
- Talk to you as a carer or parent and help you understand what is happening to your child or loved one
- Decide on a treatment or refer you to another specialist who will be able to help you
Psychologists are commonly involved in the treatment of eating disorders. Psychologists will generally:
- Conduct assessments to diagnose mental illnesses or conditions
- Develop treatment plans that specifically address mental and emotional issues associated with the eating disorder (e.g. body image or weight issues)
- Provide counselling for other problems not directly related to the eating disorder (e.g. family situations, social problems)
All psychologists should be tertiary qualified; in addition, clinical psychologists need to have completed postgraduate training in order to gain expertise in treating mental illnesses.
A psychiatrist is a medical practitioner who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. Psychiatrists can:
- Assess someone with an eating disorder to diagnose various disorders
- Develop treatment plans that help to treat the disorder
- Prescribe medication and monitor its effectiveness
All psychiatrists will have completed medical training and additional supervised psychiatric practice.
Dietitians often play a significant role in the treatment of eating disorders. Dieititians can:
- Translate scientific information into practical advice surrounding food and healthy eating
- Prescribe dietary treatments for people suffering from eating disorders
- Teach people with eating disorders how to eat and how to buy appropriate foods (e.g. in a supermarket)
- Provide medical nutrition therapy services
A nutritionist is a tertiary qualified professional who can provide general support to people with eating disorders in relation to nutrition education and community health. Nutritionists can:
- Offer general advice to people with eating disorders
- Provide basic advice on nutrition, eating plans and motivations for eating well
- Address fears and concerns about food and weight
Social workers are tertiary qualified and are often involved with treatment, if the person presents with additional social and mental health issues. Social workers can:
- Provide individual, couple and family counselling for people with eating disorders and their carers
- Provide case management and referrals or resources
- Facilitate support groups and provide links to other community resources
Social workers can be found in hospitals and health services, government programs such as Centrelink and community organisations.
Occupational Therapists & Rehabilitation Therapists
Occupational therapists and rehabilitation therapists help someone with an eating disorder to develop, practise and implement the life skills they require to address their disordered eating behaviour. OT and RTs can:
- Assist with the development of relevant life skills
- Address disordered eating behaviours through practical skills
Nurses and mental health nurses form an important part of the multidisciplinary treatment team. Nurses can:
- Provide practical medical and mental health care during hospitalisation or treatment via the health system
- Conduct medical or mental health assessments
- Administer medications
- Consult to ensure needs are being met
If a person with an eating disorder is admitted to hospital or a similar community setting, either as part of an outpatient or inpatient program, nurses and mental health nurses will become involved in the treatment of that patient and their eating disorder on a daily basis.
Choosing a therapist
When choosing a therapist, it is important to remember that the relationship you have with your therapists and clinicians is vital. At the heart of a good therapeutic relationship lies:
- Understanding – your therapist understands your disorder and your emotions and feelings, and you also understand their role in the treatment and recovery process
- Trust – you trust your therapist and your therapist trusts you; give time for trust to develop
- Rapport – you can talk openly and be heard without judgement
- Collaboration – you and your therapist work as a team, developing mutual understanding, setting goals and following through on objectives
If you need assistance finding the right therapist for yourself or someone you care for, contact your local support organisation.