The “T” Word

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“You run into that more than I do. All of my patients are already in therapy.”

That is how Joanne responded when I suggested that she write a feature about the challenge of helping resistant patients in need of therapy to agree to go. Apparently, the responsibility of writing about the topic then falls on me, and appropriately so, I suppose, for I do run into this issue quite often on my side of our practice.

Joanne rarely runs into this dilemma because she focuses exclusively on eating disorders, and by the time a patient makes their way to her, the importance of a complete treatment team – a dietitian, a physician, and yes, a therapist – has usually been explained and emphasized to them at some point already.

In contrast, while eating disorders are similarly my area of specialization, I also help people with other conditions, such as high cholesterol and hypertension. As such, I tend to attract patients who view – or want to view – their challenges as superficial food issues even if it quickly becomes apparent to me that something deeper is at play.

That brings us to a critical juncture in our work and often a difficult conversation. How do we emphasize the importance of therapy while remaining sensitive to the reality that we live in a society that stigmatizes mental health issues?

Well, we do just that. We talk about the upsides of therapy as well as the patient’s thoughts, questions, and concerns, including any hesitations they might have. Oftentimes we also talk about the stigma because I think it is important to bring out into the open the reality that a therapy referral comes with a connotation that would not arise if I were suggesting someone meet with pretty much any other kind of specialist.

Sometimes patients are hesitant to disclose their true reasons for not wanting to go to therapy, or maybe they have trouble putting their fingers on what their reasons are, but they know they do not want to go. “It is not worth the time,” “I do not hate myself,” and “I have friends I can talk to” are some of the superficial reasons patients have told me. Time, trust, and continued conversation are sometimes necessary for us to get to the point of having a candid discussion about whatever their hesitations really are.

A common sentiment I hear is, “I think I want to start with just a dietitian.” Earlier in my career, I had a peer supervision leader who refused to work with a patient with an eating disorder unless they were also in therapy, a policy that I then adopted. Eating disorders are mental health issues that play out through eating behaviors, so while they affect nutrition, they are not directly nutrition issues. The dietitian’s roles are to provide nutrition support (if applicable) and to help the patient form a new and healthier relationship with food as the disorder recedes. However, because eating disorders are mental health issues, the bulk of the recovery does not happen with a dietitian, but rather with a therapist. Without this key member of the treatment team, the patient’s chances of recovery drop so dramatically that some dietitians, including my peer supervision leader, feel it is unethical to work with someone who refuses therapy.

In the last few years, as a result of conversations I have had with other colleagues, I have reversed course. The rationale is that if I terminate my work with a patient who refuses therapy, then they are left with nobody to help them, but if I continue working with them, then at least they have me in the meantime, and, hopefully, they will become more open to the idea of therapy as time goes on.

As dietitians continue to debate this issue, my own ambivalence oscillates from one side to the other and back again, and I have no idea what my policies will be in this regard down the road. What I do know, and what dietitians who specialize in treating eating disorders agree on, is that therapy is essential for recovery.

Therapy can also be immensely helpful for some patients without eating disorders, too. One of the most interesting aspects of nutrition work – but also one of its greatest challenges – is the wide array of factors that influence the decisions we make regarding what, when, and how much to eat. Many examples, such as low self-esteem or a poor relationship with a close family member, can significantly affect eating behaviors, yet are largely beyond my expertise to treat alone. The boundary of my scope of practice bleeds into that of mental health professionals, who can effectively address these deeper issues and free people up to form healthier relationships with food.

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