Short-Term vs. Long-Term Eating Disorder Treatment: Which is Right for You?
Written by: Ashley Moser, LMFT, CEDS
Clinical Education Specialist at The Renfrew Center
Treatment for an eating disorder requires commitment. Emotional commitment, a financial commitment, and a time commitment. These factors often play a role when deciding what treatment option to select. In this post, we compare short-term versus long-term treatment options to help you determine your next step towards recovery.
There are many factors to consider when selecting a treatment setting to address eating disorder symptoms. Depending on the person and their circumstances, the decision to select short- or long-term treatment may be influenced by one or all the following:
Work or School Schedule
Severity of Symptoms
Access to care
While all of the above are valid factors to consider when selecting a treatment option, without the appropriate level of care and support, the outcome of treatment may be compromised. So, when faced with the decision to admit to treatment, how do you decide what is best when there are conflicting needs and barriers? Let’s start by comparing short-term and long-term options.
What is Short-Term Treatment?
Short-term treatment for an eating disorder is oftentimes experienced in higher level of care settings. These settings provide intensive treatment that achieves progress in a shorter period. This is done by providing multiple hours of medical, nutritional, therapeutic, and psychiatric intervention in a structured environment.
Higher levels of care include:
Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) aka “Day treatment programs” (DTP)
Residential treatment (RES)
Inpatient hospitalization (IP)
Short-term treatment options are often most effective in stabilizing symptoms and allow for the simultaneous treatment of multiple diagnoses including medical, nutritional and co-morbid psychiatric conditions. Due to the intensity of the treatment, short-term options often require disruption to existing schedules, time commitments, and a higher upfront cost.
What is Long-Term Treatment?
Long-term treatment for an eating disorder is oftentimes experienced in outpatient level of care settings. These settings provide treatment in less frequent and less intensive interventions. Progress is achieved gradually over a longer period.
Outpatient services include:
Outpatient nutrition therapy
Primary care appointments
Group therapy and/or support groups
Long-term treatment options often are more affordable in the short term, less disruptive to existing schedules and require less involvement from support systems (e.g., childcare). Due to the length of time needed to achieve progress, long-term treatment can have high rates of patient burn-out and result in a referral to a higher level of care if new symptoms develop or existing symptoms worsen.
3 Questions to Ask When Choosing Between Short & Long-Term Treatment
The following questions are important to consider when deciding if short or long-term treatment is right for you.
Question #1: What is the professional recommendation following an assessment?
Eating disorder thoughts frequently convince folks that they are not sick enough for treatment, so it can be difficult to clearly recognize when a higher level of support is needed. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) developed specific guidelines for medical and mental health providers to use when recommending a level of care for treatment. A qualified eating disorder specialist can provide a thorough assessment to identify which level of care would best fit your needs.
Question #2: What is your desired outcome?
Eating disorders often negatively impact life across various domains. When you envision yourself at the end of your treatment experience, what is different mentally, medically, and socially? Are those goals more connected to the outcome aligned with short-term or long-term treatment?
Recovery can be quite challenging both physically and emotionally, due to intense urges, uncomfortable sensations, and frequent, intrusive eating disorder thoughts. If you are needing more consistent support and structure to break the eating disorder cycle, while targeting multiple conditions, short-term treatment may be your ideal choice. If you are wanting to make more gradual change with less structure and increased self-reliance, long-term may be best. The presence of medical symptoms or psychiatric safety concerns may dictate the need for a higher level of care and should not be overlooked or minimized due to inconvenience.
Question #3: What are you willing to commit to?
What time and financial commitment are you willing and able to make? Treating an eating disorder will require taking time out of your life and allocating your budget to include resources for support. Your choice of treatment option will have short and long-term costs to your time and finances regardless of the treatment option selected. Delaying or avoiding treatment also has a cost in a number of ways. Take time to identify all the pros & cons to pursuing treatment as well as the pros & cons of staying the same.
While both short-term and long-term treatment programs are options for addressing eating disorder symptoms, many folks will start at a higher level, and gradually step down through the lower levels of care when they’re ready to do so. Short-term, higher level of care programs provide necessary medical and/or psychological stabilization, and long-term outpatient programs maintain progress, address long term patterns, and target contributing factors.
When making the decision to receive help, it is important to consider a variety of factors while also remembering:
The perfect time for treatment does not exist
There will be a time and financial commitment to any treatment option
Your health and wellbeing matter
You deserve help and a life without the limitations of an eating disorder
Recovery can be difficult, but it is much less difficult when you have support at the appropriate level of care