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Exploring the Role of Psychiatric Care for Eating Disorder Treatment

by: Oliver-Pyatt Centers
October 17, 2022
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Exploring the Role of Psychiatric Care for Eating Disorder Treatment

Being serious mental health disorders that can have severe mental and physical health consequences, eating disorders often require extensive psychiatric treatment. This extends beyond the role of therapy; although psychologists and recovery coaches are essential parts of treatment, psychiatric intervention is common in eating disorder treatment. Treatment is also not limited to the stereotype of an eating disorder patient. Eating disorders can take their toll on people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds.

Sometimes, people are not aware of the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist or therapist. Although psychologists and therapists require extensive training and field work to earn their title and practice, they cannot write prescriptions and don’t attend medical school. Psychiatrists, however, do attend medical school, specializing in both psychology and the medical aspects of how the brain works. For illnesses such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, therapy is absolutely key to recovery – but they often require a psychiatrist’s input as well.

Psychiatrists Are Part of a Care Team

Effective treatment for eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder normally goes beyond talk therapy and requires medical and psychiatric care as well as extensive nutritional education and quality-of-life enhancements. At a residential treatment center, individuals with various forms of eating disorders work with a team of health professionals that may include medical doctors, registered dietitians, and crucially, psychiatrists.

Although many people feel some trepidation about the idea of undergoing psychiatric treatment, it’s a key part of most recovery journeys. Here we’ll explore some of the ways psychiatrists form an integral part of the recovery team – what they can do, what they can’t, and how they help to provide the best outcomes for their patients.

The Role of a Psychiatry in Residential Treatment for Eating Disorders

Psychiatric care plays an important role in the eating disorder treatment process for people with eating disorders, as well as the many cases in which there is a co-occurring psychiatric disorder such as OCD. Eating disorders rarely present without another form of psychiatric disorder – according to some studies, 55-97% of all people with eating disorders also have at least one comorbid psychiatric illness.

As with the general population, depression is likely the most common co-occurring disorder, although various forms of anxiety disorders are also common. Less frequent, but also occurring at a higher percentage than the general public, are various forms of anxiety disorders such as social anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. The latter is particularly important to eating disorder treatment; a 2012 study highlighted a clear link between PTSD and disordered eating behaviors. In many cases, disordered eating behaviors act as an equally disordered coping mechanism for the negative emotions brought on by trauma. Psychiatrists are well-qualified to treat the symptoms of PTSD and corresponding behaviors through a combination of therapy and sometimes medication. Borderline Personality Disorder and OCD are also thought to occur at higher rates among people with eating disorders.

It would be remiss to discuss eating disorders and their comorbid psychiatric presentations without bringing up suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among people with eating disorders, especially Anorexia Nervosa, and self-harm is also quite frequent among this group. Many studies have indicated that the rate of these presentations is much higher in people that suffer from an eating disorder than in other groups. These are considered psychiatric emergencies – the patient must be stabilized and free from imminent suicide attempts before engaging in therapeutic or nutritional treatment.

Psychiatrists’ Role at an Eating Disorder Treatment Center

A psychiatrist specializing in eating disorders understands the intricacies of disordered eating behaviors and how they affect brain function. Their expertise in other mental health issues is also key because many psychiatric symptoms are common in people with an eating disorder diagnosis. For example, many teens with eating disorders also experience co-occurring conditions like acute anxiety, OCD, clinical depression, and substance abuse. In such cases of a dual diagnosis, psychiatric treatment must be understood and addressed appropriately.

The Role of Psychiatric Medications in Eating Disorder Treatment

Most treatment experts prefer to engage in talk therapy before even considering the use of mediation. This is with good reason; the FDA has not approved any medications specifically designed for treating eating disorders. Most of the medications used in eating disorder treatment are antidepressants or SSRI medications that help to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD. Anti-psychotics and benzodiazepines can be also used. Although primary care physicians are technically able to prescribe these drugs, most will refer to an eating disorder specialist psychiatrist rather than make the call themselves.

How Does Psychiatric Care Help with Eating Disorder Recovery?

Comprehensive psychiatric treatment allows clients to both address the psychiatric aspects of their eating disorder and any co-occurring psychiatric illnesses. Having a psychiatrist on the treatment team also provides the therapists and nutritionists with a slightly different, specialized perspective that encourages a comprehensive care plan.


Oliver-Pyatt Centers provides residential and day treatment programs for individuals struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Exercise Addiction. We integrate highly personalized and sophisticated medical, psychiatric, clinical and nutritional care with comprehensive family support. Our treatment is therapeutically grounded, incorporating state-of-the-art approaches, research, outcome data and up-to-date medical knowledge. For more information, please visit: www.oliverpyattcenters.com.

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