Research shows family-based therapy effective for anorexia

Families can be taught to help their children overcome anorexia nervosa, according to a leading clinical psychology researcher presenting on family-based therapy (FBT) at the APS Clinical Psychology Conference in Sydney this week.

Associate Professor Susan Byrne, from the University of Western Australia, School of Psychology, and the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Perth, said: “There is now a substantial evidence base to support the effectiveness of family-based therapy.  We are seeing a 50-60% rate of recovery in adolescents treated with family-based therapy, and clinical trials show that the relapse rates one year and five years afterwards are much lower than with therapy that focuses on the individual only.”

Anorexia nervosa has a 15-20% mortality rate – the highest of any psychiatric disorder.

Family-based therapy involves supporting parents, and other important family members, to take responsibility for their child’s eating and weight gain.  Once the acute starvation is reversed, control over eating is returned to the adolescent. Other issues can then be addressed.

Individual therapies treat the child in isolation from their family.  Prof Byrne said: “With family-based therapy, the family is not seen as the cause of the problem, but rather as a resource to help address the problem. Nor is there blame apportioned to the ill adolescent. The focus is not on what caused the anorexia, but on what can be done to treat it.

“Parents are trained to have a zero-tolerance environment for self-starvation in their home and to identify signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa, hence keeping relapses at bay.”

Professor Byrne said that despite its success, family-based therapy was not widely available due to a lack of trained clinicians. Her presentation on Saturday 30 June at the Conference aims to train clinical psychologists to implement family-based therapy for adolescents in their clinical practices.

She said: “The rates of disordered eating in young people have increased considerably in the last two decades, so it is important that a greater numbers of clinicians are trained to deliver therapies we know to be effective.”

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