How to Find the Right Eating Disorder Professional

Eating disorders (ED’s) are complex illnesses with severe medical consequences.  Therefore it is imperative to select an ED professional or treatment facility that is skilled and experienced in this area.  As well, it is always extremely important that your ED professional is someone who you have a certain degree of comfort with, can trust and who understands the personal experience of your eating disorder.

Although there are a variety of approaches used to treat eating disorders, the first few stages should consist of the following:

  1. Initially, it is necessary to attend to any life threatening issues such as severe malnutrition and suicidal behaviors.  This may require hospitalization until medical stability is established.  
  2. The next phase of treatment involves working on weight restoration and normalized activity and eating patterns.
  3. The last phase incorporates establishing long-term maintenance of healthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  This may include attending to any issues related to a person’s ability to function in an effective way such as addressing any co-morbid disorders (depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Etc), managing environmental factors and interpersonal relationships, and developing useful coping strategies.  


Questions For Specialists

When selecting an ED therapist, here are some guidelines to assist you in making your decision.  Remember…ask questions as this is about your future recovery and well-being!   You are interviewing the therapist, and they should be open to answering any questions you have in regards to the service they will be providing you.

  • What is your training, background and experience in working with eating disorders?
    Ask how many clients with eating disorders they currently work with at any given time and where they acquired their expertise in this area.  How many years of experience do they have working with this population? What is their approach to eating disorder treatment and is backed by evidence-based research?  Do they utilize other approaches to individualize and compliment treatment?  As well, is the therapist trained to manage co-existing conditions such as depression, addiction, ADHD, personality disorders etc that can offer occur alongside an eating disorder?  
  • Are you a member of any professional eating disorder organizations?
    It is important to stay up to date on the latest research and evidence based treatment protocols, and to be affiliated with the eating disorder community.  Some examples of such organizations are NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Center), IAEDP (International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals),  and the EDAC (Eating Disorders Association of Canada).
  • Choose a therapist who has received advanced training as a therapist or counselor.
    For example someone who has received a Masters degree or a Ph.D. in counseling or psychology.  Ensure that the therapist is properly licensed (see below for mental health therapist qualifications).  
  • Do you collaborate with other health care professionals?
    Nutritional counseling is a necessary part of the treatment process and the therapist should be affiliated with some registered dietitians.  As well, it will be important to have a physician monitor your physical well-being and manage any necessary medications during your treatment.  Ensure that the therapist is willing to communicate regularly with your team of health care providers.  
  • How will family members or significant others be involved in treatment?
    An eating disorder involves all aspects of a person’s life, and therefore it is important to include significant others in the recovery process to some degree, especially if the person with the eating disorder is a child or teen.  
  • What is your process of referral to a higher level of care if that is needed and which treatment centers do you affiliate yourself with?
    An effective ED therapist should be aware when a more intensive or different approach to treatment is necessary and be familiar with the various options available both publicly and privately. 

Understanding the differences in mental health professionals

There are a variety of mental health professionals with different levels of training and this can be quite confusing when looking for someone to work with.  Keep in mind that regardless of a therapist’s title (doctor, social worker, psychologist. Etc), an eating disorder practitioner will require additional training and/or experience in the field of eating disorders to be considered effective at treating this illness.  

Psychologists have a masters or doctoral degree (Ph.D., Ed.D., Psy.D.) from graduate programs approved by the Canadian Psychological Association. They are also qualified to administer psychological assessments and may have as many years of education/training as medical doctors and psychiatrists, but generally do not offer pharmaceutical support.  Licensing or certification procedures vary and are the responsibility of the provincial governing bodies.  Please visit the College of Alberta Psychologists for more information.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized in working with psychiatric issues and can provide pharmaceutical support.   An individual can practice psychiatry having had four years of medical school and a one-year medical internship, followed by a four-year residency program in psychiatry. Psychiatrists may or may not provide ‘talk’ therapy in conjunction with medication management.  Please visit the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta for more information.

Clinical Social Workers
A clinical social worker must have a college degree plus at least two years of graduate training in a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.  Certified social workers have a master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work (MSW, DSW, or Ph.D.) from a program approved by the Council on Social Work Education, have had two years of post-degree experience in the practice of social work, and must have passed an examination given by the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW).  Licensing procedures vary from province to province.  Please visit the Alberta College of Social Workers for more information.

A therapist, counselor or psychotherapist are generic terms referring in general to a health professional.  Anyone may use these terms to describe themselves and they may or may not have sufficient or relevant education, training, and experience.   Ask for the individuals credentials and the professional bodies they are affiliated with.  You can then access these organizations online to make your determination.