Working with a Recovered Professional
Many eating disorder programs actively hire staff who have personal experience with recovery. However, there are no formal criteria for hiring recovered staff, nor are there guidelines for defining when a person is recovered.
Since the experience of recovery is different for everyone, it can be tricky to determine when a recovered person is ready to work in the field. Some programs have informal recovery criteria, such as normal weight and abstinence from bingeing and purging for 1 to 2 years, other programs have no criteria. The most important criteria appear to be overall comfort with size and shape.
Prevalence of Recovered Professionals
Among programs that actively hire recovered individuals, approximately 30 to 80 percent of staff have a history of personal recovery. One study by Andrea Bloomgarden, PhD, and colleagues surveyed 150 staff members at a large treatment program regarding family history or personal struggles with eating disorders. Twenty-nine percent had struggled themselves, and 14 percent had a family member with an eating disorder.
Professionals who have successfully recovered offer a message that full recovery is possible—as well as a stable and productive life. This can be a great motivator for the patient who has struggled for years and may be feeling hopeless. The “been there, done that” connection can also be helpful for establishing trust and understanding.When the patient knows that their therapist has gone through some of the same experiences, this may help open communication lines.
According to Craig Johnson, PhD, and Carolyn Costin, MFCC, MA, one of the most powerful experiences a patient can have is openly and successfully ending the shame of perpetrating a false front. They agree, “When patients see recovered clinicians being valued and occupying positions of status within treatment programs, it can be powerful. It can send a message that individuals who have had eating disorders can expose these shame-filled aspects of themselves, master them, and then use the experience to consolidate a more authentic self system that can be valued by others.”
Relapse is the most obvious disadvantage for professionals who have had personal experience with anorexia or bulimia. Estimates are that 0 to 20 percent of staff may experience relapse, although further study is needed. The longer a professional has been in recovery, the less chance there is that relapse might occur. Due to legal issues, there are no definite guidelines for hiring or monitoring of staff members, or for defining relapse behaviors. Each treatment center must screen professionals according to its own judgments.
How a professional views the eating disorder and treatment can affect both the treatment methods and outcome. Some professionals may have a tendency to utilize one treatment strategy or philosophy above all others, especially if it worked for them. This can be a weakness in cases where the patient needs to explore their own path to find what works for them. Opinions also differ on whether persons can fully “recover” or whether they are always in the process of “recovering.” This is a debatable issue that can affect how the recovery process is viewed.
Patients have the right to know if their treatment providers have been in recovery, although they must decide for themselves whether or not that is a strength or weakness. The field needs guidelines, and professional organizations should make recommendations to address these issues.
By Lindsay Woolman, BA
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
2004 Volume 2, Number 5
©2004 Gürze Books
About the Author
Lindsay Woolman, BA, was managing editor of Eating Disorders Today from 2002 until 2007. Source material came from articles published in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention.