What Can You Do If Someone Refuses Help for an Eating Disorder?

Despite the emotional and physical suffering that results from most eating disorders, many people are often reluctant to begin eating disorder treatment. Like with any kind of mental health disease, an eating disorder is likely to be a source of shame for the person suffering from it, and that can push them into hiding the issue or even denying it exists. This form of denial is often not a conscious choice, and a person’s receptivity to accepting help is often impacted negatively without their knowing it. 

Can Someone Be Made to Enter Treatment?

A disclaimer for this answer: all the options discussed below should be absolute last resorts. Respecting someone’s rights and an individual is not only the moral thing to do – it’s important in the therapy that follows as well. A person who chooses to get help, even if convincing them is hard, has a better chance to recover than someone who has no choice.

If someone has an eating disorder deemed life-threatening by a physician, family members may legally be able to force the person into an eating disorder treatment program. As mentioned, involuntary treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder is controversial because it seems counterproductive to compel uncooperative eating disorder patients into treatment.

Eating disorder treatment centers that admit adolescent patients are often wary of involuntary treatment, nor both legal and ethical reasons. Teens are often “coerced” by the parents by getting an ultimatum. Threatening to take away a teen’s cell phone, car, housing or something else the teen values is one way a parent can avoid forcing their child into an eating disorder treatment program using legal means.

Guardianship and Involuntary Admission

A judge has to be involved in any decision regarding guardianship. They determine if the person in question is incapable of making rational decisions on their own. Medical guardianship can be conferred in such a case. Although medical authority does not grant someone the ability to sign adults into eating disorder treatment centers, it does give them legal authority to decide what should be done regarding an individual’s psychological and physical care.

What Is Conservatorship?

Another ethical line that people trying to help a loved one should be very careful about crossing, a conservatorship is the granting of financial power to another person. A person who has conservatorship over a person with an eating disorder may try to restrict how the subject spends their money – for example, the money they might use to pay for a gym membership and purchasing weight loss aids like diuretics and laxatives.

Be aware that guardianship and conservatorship are regulated under state laws. One, both or neither may be effective in certain states recognizing these legal measures. If you do manage to obtain guardianship or conservatorship over a loved one with an eating disorder and they wish to seek eating disorder counseling in another state, you may have to get further legal advice and/or modify court orders to accommodate your loved one.

What Is a 72-Hour Hold?

A 72-hour hold is an emergency hold applied to individuals are legally considered an immediate danger to others or themselves. Hospitals can hold people with eating disorders who are suffering from severe malnutrition, heart failure, and other serious health issues until the courts can assess the physical and mental status of the person held for 72 hours. During a 72-hour hold hearing, the “defendant” is granted a lawyer to represent them. To get someone released from a 72-hour hold, the lawyer must argue to the judge that their client is competent and not incapacitated.

Some people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder do not believe they have a problem. Part of their illness is attributed to this lack of insight concerning their health, body dysmorphic disorder, extreme anxiety over the thought of entering eating disorder treatment centers and obsessive attitudes regarding food, eating, and movement.