Involuntary treatment of eating disorders

T. L. Watson, W. A. Bowers, A. E. Andersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Involuntary treatment of any psychiatric disorder has always been controversial, especially for eating disorders. Patients with an eating disorder of life-threatening severity frequently refuse hospitalization. In this study, the authors compared individual characteristics and treatment outcomes of patients admitted to an inpatient program for voluntary or involuntary treatment of their eating disorder. Method: This study examined 397 patients admitted to an inpatient treatment program over 7 years. Demographic measures, length of illness, weight history, and treatment response of patients admitted for voluntary treatment and those legally committed for involuntary treatment were compared. Results: The two groups were similar in age, gender ratio, and marital status, but those legally committed for involuntary treatment had a longer illness duration and significantly more previous hospitalizations. At admission, the patients legally committed for involuntary treatment were lower in weight and required a significantly longer hospitalization to attain a healthy discharge weight. However, there was no statistically significant difference between involuntary and voluntary patients in rate of weight restoration (2.6 versus 2.2 lb/week, respectively). The groups did not differ in history of comorbid substance abuse or clinical depression but did differ significantly on all admission IQ measures. Eating disorder severity, as assessed by the Eating Attitudes Test-26, Eating Disorder Inventory, and MMPI-II, was similar for both patient groups. Conclusions: This study suggests that a substantial minority of patients with severe eating disorders will not seek treatment unless legally committed to an inpatient program. Despite the involuntary initiation of treatment, the short-term response of the legally committed patients was just as good as the response of the patients admitted for voluntary treatment. Further, the majority of those involuntarily treated later affirmed the necessity of their treatment and showed goodwill toward the treatment process. Only a long-term follow-up study will indicate whether these two populations differ in the enduring nature of their treatment response.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1806-1810
Number of pages5
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 15 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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