Eating disorders are chronically underfunded, both from a research and a treatment standpoint. Many healthcare providers are ill-equipped to diagnose and treat eating disorders, and many insurance companies will severely limit treatment or deny treatment altogether. This is seriously depressing, especially since we know that eating disorders that are caught and treated early are less likely to turn into more serious forms that can require even more extensive (and expensive!) care.
There are several organizations that are working to address the inadequacy of eating disorder treatment and payment. But, meanwhile, if you have a child who has an eating disorder, you have to figure out how to pay for it.
Your first step is to get a formal diagnosis and find out what your insurance provider offers in terms of treatment. Depending on the diagnosis, your insurance provider, and various other factors, your child’s eating disorder treatment may be covered up to a certain point. But it is unlikely that the ongoing treatment required to maintain recovery will be covered. So, unfortunately, parents are in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how to pay for at least some of their child’s treatment for an eating disorder.
Grants for eating disorder treatment
There are two organizations that offer grants to help pay for eating disorder treatment. Project Heal is a major US-based organization that administers several grants, which you can check out here. The Manna fund offers scholarships for inpatient treatment programs in Atlanta, which you can check out here. Unfortunately, those are the only two organizations that we can currently identify as actively providing help with eating disorder treatment, but ask your treatment program or provider whether they have any grants or scholarships available.
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Low/No Cost eating disorder treatment
If your child is currently enrolled in K-12 school, you should check with the school psychologist and/or counselor to find out how they may be able to help. Some schools have the resources to provide free counseling for students who have eating disorders.
If your child is currently enrolled in college, you should check with the school health center and psychology department. Often students can receive free counseling and therapy for a period of time.
Sometimes universities and research hospitals offer eating disorder treatment programs as part of their research. For example, the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry has linked to RecruitMe, a recruitment tool meant to connect those who want to participate in clinical trials or research studies to the researchers that are conducting them, to help you find one. You can also check the national list of ongoing clinical trials here.
The non-profit organization Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a network of mental health professionals dedicated to providing in-office mental health care to individuals, couples, children, and families in need. Open Path therapists provide in-office sessions ranging from $30-60 for an individual and $30-80 for couples and families.
Budgeting for eating disorder treatment
Unfortunately, like insurance coverage, both of these options are limited in scope and time. While they typically cover inpatient treatment, they may not cover ongoing treatment that is often necessary to maintain recovery. Eating disorders are complex and multi-faceted disorders that typically require ongoing treatment for underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression.
This means that parents are in the unenviable position of needing to fund their child’s recovery treatment out-of-pocket. If you are struggling to pay for your child’s treatment, please know that it’s absolutely not fair that we live in a society that grossly under-treats this serious condition. This totally sucks. Many parents go into debt, deplete retirement savings, and resort to other desperate measures to save their child.
Here are some basic budgeting concepts to help you plan for treatment.
1. Avoid expensive solutions
Many parents don’t realize that they don’t have to send their child to inpatient treatment for an eating disorder. Residential treatment programs cost an average of $30,000, but many times less expensive treatment is an excellent option.
In cases in which your child is not in immediate medical danger, you may be able to utilize outpatient treatment centers or even a less structured solution utilizing regular sessions with therapists and nutritionists. Remember that eating disorder treatment is a marathon, not a sprint. Very few of us will become instantly cured, and parents need to have the finances and energy for ongoing treatment for the foreseeable future.
Do your research. It’s hard to make big decisions when we’re really stressed, but as long as your child is medically stable, take some time to think through your options. Learn about eating disorders and treatment options, and don’t just blindly follow a treatment center’s recommendation. Remember that no matter how nice and authoritative they seem, treatment centers are running a business and need to recruit customers. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but we must always take their advice with this in mind.
It is better to hire one excellent and highly-qualified therapist or registered dietitian than to work with a low-cost, poorly-qualified team. Ideally, we recommend finding a weight-neutral therapist who has been certified by the IAEDP and has at least 5 years of clinical experience working specifically with eating disorders.
2. Create a budget
The biggest mistake people make when budgeting is not writing down the expected costs. Most of us just think about money one day at a time, but it will really help you avoid financial ruin if you can look at the costs of your child’s treatment clearly and in writing.
Whatever treatment you decide upon, you should ask your providers to give you a budget for at least six months of treatment. For example, if you were paying out of pocket, you might pay the following fees:
- Therapy for your child: $150 per session, with twice-weekly sessions for four weeks, and once-weekly sessions for the following five months.
- Nutrition therapy for your child: $100 per session, with four sessions spread over four weeks, with follow up once-monthly sessions for the following five months.
- Family therapy: $150 per session, with twice-monthly sessions for six months.
This means you can budget as follows:
|Therapist||Dietitian||Family Therapy||Monthly Total|
Once you have estimated your monthly costs and the total cost for six months of treatment, you can begin to think about how you are going to afford treatment.
3. Create a savings plan
Before you start considering dipping into savings and using credit cards to pay for treatment, create a savings plan – you may be surprised by how little changes can make a big impact on your ability to pay for treatment. Think of every way you can reduce existing expenses first because this is going to help you avoid going into debt. Most of us have at least some non-essential expenses that can be cut to afford major expenses like eating disorder treatment. The key with a savings plan is to write it down and commit to your savings plan in writing.
Paying for your child’s eating disorder treatment is an unfortunate side effect of living in a society that undervalues and under-treats mental illness. Be careful about over-investing without thinking through the actual costs and creating a financial plan to make sure you don’t end up in an unsustainable situation.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.