Eating Disorder Counseling Careers

What is Eating Disorder Counseling?

The niche of eating disorder counseling is a growing area of expertise. Eating disorder counseling deals with scores of teenage and adolescent individuals who struggle with maladaptive eating patterns. Often those who struggle with eating disorders use food as a means of controlling their environments. The goal of those within the field of eating disorder counseling is to ensure that all of their patients eventually adopt healthy eating patterns and lifestyles.

Sadly, the niche of eating disorder counseling is growing. Although a large percentage of the individuals in treatment are teenage and adolescent females, men do struggle with eating disorders as well. Eating disorder counselors are charged with the unique responsibility of saving lives through therapeutic intervention. Although a large number of patients do recover and go on to lead successful and rewarding lives, a small percentage do die each year as a result of their struggles with eating disorders.

Some eating disorders can be quite dangerous, sometimes resulting in death. Though all eating disorders can be dangerous, the following three disorders are particularly dangerous:

  • Anorexia nervosa is the extreme restriction of food by a person in order to lose weight, which can lead to death from malnutrition. Anorexia can also lead to refeeding syndrome, an electrolyte imbalance that can lead to respiratory arrest or cardiac arrest, either of which can lead to death.
  • Bulimia nervosa is binge eating that results in feelings of guilt, shame and/or remorse, feelings that normally cause a person to compensate by vomiting and/or over-exercising. Repeated vomiting can rupture the esophagus or cause an electrolyte imbalance that can damage the heart.
  • Binge eating is eating excessively, which brings on feelings of self-loathing or guilt, though it doesn’t normally lead to vomiting. The person might compensate for the feelings of guilt by periodic dieting or fasting. Binge eating can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity or other ailments.

What Does an Eating Disorder Counselor Do?

An eating disorder counselor is an important part of the team involved in treating people suffering from a range of eating disorders. Their focus is on both the underlying causes of the disorder as well as treatment of the immediate physical symptoms.

Working with the Individual

The one-to-one aspects of the role are focused on helping sufferers to help themselves. In adult patients, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is the evidence based treatment of choice. In younger patients, the same techniques are modified and used. For all patients, the CBT techniques are usually most effective when used as part of a greater plan, these alone will likely be insufficient.

CBT is based on the assumption that a patient’s negative thoughts and feelings underpin their disorder and that by re-modelling these thought processes and emotions, healthier decisions and actions can be achieved. For each patient, the counselor works to address which specific factors and negative thoughts are encouraging the maintenance of their condition – treatment is highly specialized for each individual.

In addition to understanding the psychological aspects, the counselor identifies any cultural, social or interpersonal factors that are either instigating or maintaining both the negative thoughts and the behaviors.

Working with the Family

For younger patients, an approach involving the family is usually adopted in addition. The aim is to help the individual but also increase the strength of the relationships around them by helping their family members support them in an effective way.

Eating disorder counselors may organize and mediate family therapy sessions. Activities in these sessions may include tasks such as switching roles or writing down their thoughts about food items. The goal of these activities is to help demonstrate differences in perceptions about food. This increases awareness and understanding within the family but also helps to show the individual how their disorder is impacting others and how their views differ from others. Counselors may also conduct activities such as observing a family mealtime to see the family dynamics around this difficult and potentially stressful time.

Where Does an Eating Disorder Counselor Work?

Eating disorder counselors typically work in the following environments:

  • Eating disorder centers
  • Mental health centers
  • Treatment facilities
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Individual and family services
  • Residential care and nursing facilities
  • Private practice

Why Do We Need Eating Disorder Counselors?

The causes of a compulsive eating disorder can be quite complex, often involving feelings like inadequacy, competitiveness, anxiety, the need to please other and low self-esteem. Medical doctors can help treat the physical symptoms of an eating disorder, but they aren’t trained to treat the eating disorder itself, because the root cause of the disorder lies in a psychological problem within the patient.

Eating disorder counselors can help patients get to the root of their problem and prescribe a treatment plan tailored to the particular needs of the patient. These counselors are trained in various treatments like dialectical behavior therapy, family therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy and group therapy. They are sometimes also skilled in various alternative therapies.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become an Eating Disorder Counselor?

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, those interested in becoming eating disorder counselors, must obtain a minimum of a master’s degree in clinical or counseling psychology. It is highly recommended that professionals eventually also earn a doctoral degree. In order to successfully gain admission to graduate school, experts recommend that you take both the general and psychology GRE examinations. Students can also study psychoanalytic therapy, body-image, personality, family therapy, and group dynamics. In order to earn a doctoral degree in the field of eating disorder counseling, students must successfully complete a dissertation.

What are the Work Experience Requirements for an Eating Disorder Counselor?

In order to become an eating disorder counselor, you must successfully complete a clinical internship. During a supervised internship, aspiring clinicians will work directly with those suffering from eating disorders. Interns often work in low-cost clinics, and in state hospitals. Internships can also be conducted under the license of a professional already engaged in private practice. This work experience will include developing treatment plans for those suffering from eating disorders.

Interns will often attend meetings with the clinical treatment team, and make vitally important decisions about the care of their patients. Interns will also be required to help identify any non-compliance within clinical settings. In additional to direct involvement in the treatment and care of patients, internships also require the development of record-keeping skills.

What are the Requirements for Licensure/Certification?

Licensing requirements vary widely from state to state. Information related to state professional counselor licensing boards is available on American Counseling Association website.

The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals offers a certification, however this certificate is not generally required to work in the field. Instead, eating disorder counselors must generally meet the same requirements for licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers, or licensed clinical psychologists- depending on their level of educational achievement.

What Skills are Required for an Eating Disorder Counselor?

Eating disorder counselors must be kind, empathetic, compassionate, parental, and firm. They must have a good understanding of healthy boundaries, as well as advanced working knowledge of various clinical modalities. Eating disorder counselors must be great problem-solvers, have good critical thinking skills, and excellent deductive reasoning abilities.

Eating disorder counselors must be able to interpret patient behaviors, and must be able to understand the underlying symbolism of a variety of behaviors. They should be able to maintain a healthy body weight, and be free of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and any personality disorders. In order to be a successful eating disorder counselor, one should be persuasive, have good communication skills, and be extremely patient.

What is the Salary of an Eating Disorder Counselor?

In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average yearly income for behavioral disorder counselors was around $46,240. As the level of education for eating disorder counselors increased, so did salaries.

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