What’s Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Like?

For anyone, choosing to enter a residential facility for eating disorders is challenging.  It disrupts their schoolwork or career, throws a wrench in their schedule, and disrupts their social life.  they might feel a certain stigma and want the visit to be explained away as a vacation, to avoid their friends and family (and her coworkers, superiors, and/or teachers) knowing they’re undergoing mental health treatment.  However, fear of embarrassment shouldn’t stop anyone from getting desperately-needed help.

Eating disorders count among the most dangerous mental health disorders known to scientists.  Anorexia nervosa, particularly, can have a fatality rate of 5 to 10 percent if left untreated. This exceeds any other mental health disorder, including depression. Other disorders such as bulimia nervosa, orthorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder also have high rates of fatal outcomes, and each of them can take a serious toll on a person’s physical and psychosocial health.

Despite the natural reservations anyone might have about entering a specialized residential treatment facility of any kind (let alone for a mental health issue like an eating disorder), the risks of avoiding treatment are too great. Although attending a residential facility is by definition disruptive, it’s an essential part of recovery for severe cases.

Outlining What Life at a Residential Looks Like

Here, we’re going outline what residential treatment for eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia nervosa, ARFID, and others is like.  Residential treatment doesn’t have to be frightening; here are a few reasons why:

  1. Students Won’t Necessarily Fall Behind in School

Many people who enter eating disorder treatment are high school and college students. The average age of onset for an eating disorder is between 16 and 22 years of age. During that time, residential treatment can disrupt their schoolwork. A stay in a residential treatment program usually starts at 30 days.  They can range to 90 days or more in severe cases, and continued therapy on an outpatient basis may go on for years.  That’s a lot of time to be away from academics.

Fortunately, most residential eating disorder facilities have at least a basic educational component to their program. These might include basic texts and weekly classes. For many programs, the education component tends to be much more intense.  Students in recovery can count on daily time for classes with licensed teachers, and communication with their school regarding assignments and the curriculum.  Especially at a time when college-track classes are more streamlined and competitive than ever, a quality education program can help keep an adolescent on track even while in treatment.

For college students, it may not be possible to communicate as closely with the administration and individual professors. However, most colleges have a virtual learning component to their curriculum. These can be incorporated into the treatment program with time set aside for continuing education during residential treatment. If a client decides to continue their education while in treatment, the facility will help in balancing schedules and requirements. The university will also have mental health services that can assist in the process.

  1. Life Will Be Hyper-Focused on Recovery…

 Let’s be clear – a stay at an eating disorder treatment facility is not a vacation. Although mental health facilities aren’t how they are portrayed in some entertainment like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the day-to-day of treatment is highly regimented. The client’s recovery is the focus of the staff, and it requires it to be the same for the client. For this reason, each individual’s day is scheduled.

Of course, mealtimes are the focal point of each day. Typically, breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be at the same time each day, with additional time set aside for snacks. There is usually a pre-meal assessment time to gauge each client’s meal goals and status. This may include weigh-ins, which can be difficult for some clients but is necessary for the medical staff to ensure their safety.

The rest of the day is measured out in blocks for various therapy and life-enhancing experiences. There are daily individual therapy sessions that help with emotional and behavioral health, using techniques like CBT, DBT, and CPT (see here for more information). Group therapy is another core component of treatment that will likely happen daily. These sessions are often the clients’ favorite time; the peer support, bonding, and breakthroughs that come with groups are revelatory and conducive to healing. 

  1. But It Will Be Comfortable and Safe

We’re not sure if the common misperception of mental health facilities as sterile, linoleum-floored storage houses is based on outdated hospitals from the ‘50s or media depictions like in the film Girl, Interrupted.  The truth is, a modern residential eating disorder center is usually dedicated to providing a safe, comfortable space that’s conducive to self-understanding and recovery.  They’re far from the fluorescent lights and metal cots you may be imagining.

You should expect well-groomed grounds, often in a naturally beautiful setting. Even when located in a major city, the facility will be anonymous and free of prying eyes. Usually, it will be a well-appointed multi-room house with its own grounds, exercise center, and other amenities. Almost always, there’ll be fully equipped kitchens and dining areas to help re-familiarize clients with healthy eating practices and fully appointed living rooms and bedrooms.

Part of feeling comfortable and safe, in an eating disorder treatment setting, is helping people overcome their fears and discomfort with food and eating. Centers foreground intuitive eating, a practice that makes eating for enjoyment and satiety the key, regardless of how many calories it has. It’s often a gradual process, but daily food preparation and nutritional training help ease clients into healthier eating habits. Many residential centers have dedicated chefs and dieticians on hand to make sure the food is nutritious as well as delicious.

  1. It’s Not All Therapy

 Everyone needs a break from time to time.  While residential eating disorder treatment is a serious business, it can’t be the only thing someone does for 30 days or more at a time.  That’s why centers offering a full continuum of care have begun to include what they call “life-enhancing activities” as part of the program.   To promote familiarity with living a recovered life after treatment, and to alleviate the monotony, clients will have the opportunity for excursions outside the center as well as activities within.

These might include trips to see a play or concert, or visits to museums. Participation in the arts isn’t always one-sided. Most programs for eating disorder treatment include “experiential therapies” like music therapy or art therapy, where a client expresses their emotions through painting, sculpting, singing, or playing in a band. Besides being lots of fun, these experiential therapies often allow people to express themselves in ways they can’t normally do through talking or writing in a journal. Don’t worry – you don’t need to be an accomplished musician or artist. Participants don’t need any training at all – the point isn’t to create a masterpiece but to explore different avenues of self-awareness and expression.

Excursions can even be something as simple and on-point as going grocery shopping.  It’s great practice for “life after treatment.”  There are often cooking classes, informed by input from both chefs and nutritionists. Many people with eating disorders enjoy cooking for others, and these kinds of classes help parlay that into cooking for oneself as well. Finally, every day usually ends with downtime for the clients. They can play games, chat, read, or just hang out.

Early, Comprehensive Treatment Is Essential to a Full Recovery

Hopefully, this information will help your loved one put aside at least some of the anxiety that comes with entering a residential treatment facility.  And although some trepidation is natural, the risks that come with eating disorders can’t be ignored.  As with any illness, early intervention is the best indicator of recovery, so if you or a loved one needs help with eating disorders, try to put your hesitation aside and reach out today.

No one has to go into eating disorder treatment blind. Your choice of an eating disorder treatment center is a huge one; make sure you do your research and talk to the admissions staff well before committing to treatment. When researching a residential center near you, make sure to get a virtual tour or arrange to go in person. A facility you’re not comfortable with won’t be able to treat you as effectively. So, check out your options, and talk to everybody you can – after all these are the people who can help save your life.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.