The management of an eating disorder often requires a multi-disciplinary team. This team of professionals can address the physical, psychological, behavioural, social and cultural dimensions of the disorder. The structure and approach of this team will change depending on the age and diagnosis of the individual.
General Practitioner (GP)
For most people, a GP is usually the first point of call for a person with an eating disorder. A GP will assess symptoms, perform medical examinations and tests, and give diagnoses where appropriate. Where a moderate to severe eating disorder is suspected, GPs will often refer patients to specialist practitioners, such as a psychologist, for further assessment and treatment. GPs can also prescribe drug treatments such as anti-depressants.
GP’s often remain a constant part of someone’s treatment team. This is because they can continue to monitor a person’s physical health as well as provide referrals to services as needed. Finding a GP that you trust who has experience in treating eating disorders can make a big difference to your recovery journey.
Psychologists are health professionals that specialise in mental health. They provide psychological therapy to people who are facing a range of issues, including eating disorders. In Australia, psychology is a regulated profession, with all psychologists required to be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority (AHPRA). You can check if your practioner is registered here.
When a psychologist is part of your treatment team, they will develop a treatment plan that will specifically address the issues connected to your eating disorder. They can also provide counselling for other issues not directly related to your eating disorder, such as family problems.
You may come across Clinical and Registered psychologists. The main difference between the two is the study pathway they have taken to become a psychologist. Clinical psychologists train for six years at university with practical experience in at least three different places. Registered psychologists train for four years at university, then complete two years in the workforce under the supervision of an experienced psychologist. Both clinical and registered psychologists can use the same treatment approaches with clients.
Psychiatrists have a medical degree and additional qualifications in psychiatry. They will be registered with the Medical Board of Australia and also be a member of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). Because they are medically trained, in addition to providing therapy, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, are able to monitor how well the medication is (or is not) working, and can assess and monitor physical symptoms. A referral to a psychiatrist can be obtained from a GP or from another medical practitioner.
A psychiatrist may enter your treatment through a GP referral. Depending on the GP, this may be at the start of treatment, or further down the track if other psychological therapy isn’t proving to be as effective as hoped.
Dietitians provide nutritional assessment, eating plans, and nutritional education. Dietitians are vital in the process of nutritional rehabilitation and the development of healthy eating patterns. They work with the person with the eating disorder to identify fears of food, and discuss the consequences of not eating well. They also work with the individual to recognize feelings of physical hunger and fullness and a healthy response to these.
Dietitians have generally completed a four-year course in nutrition and dietetics. When looking for a dietitian, it is recommended you ensure they are an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD).
Social workers are graduates who provide counselling including individual, couple and/or family therapy. They may also facilitate self-help and support groups. Their role in the treatment team may include assisting with information and advice on living situations, relationships, financial resources, employment, health and education. Social workers may also be trained in Family-Based Therapy, an evidence-based treatment approach.
Many people who are not psychologists or psychiatrists offer counselling, and this can be a very helpful part of treatment. Many counsellors have completed specialist courses in counselling technique or welfare, but a person can work as a counsellor in Australia without being a member of a professional body or having any specific qualification. It is wise to ask any prospective counsellor about their training and experience, and be upfront if you have any concerns about their practice.
A pediatrician is a doctor who provides specialist medical care to infants, children and adolescents. There are general pediatricians and specialist pediatricians such as pediatric cardiologists, gastroenterologists, developmental experts, etc. Pediatricians are usually involved in the treatment and care of adolescents and children with eating disorders.
Do I need professional help? Can I recover on my own?
Recovery from an eating disorder can be extremely difficult on your own. It is advised that you engage with professionals to help you through the journey. Please remember that there is no shame in seeking help. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and facing it on your own may impact your recovery outcomes.