New hope for UAE sufferers of eating disorders

Private centre offers team of experts in programme for those with ailments including anorexia and bulimia.

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ABU DHABI // A private health centre has launched the country's first comprehensive programme to treat eating disorders.

Until now, anyone struggling with life-threatening disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating would have to see a psychologist for referral to specialist doctors.

But the entire programme is available at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology - for those who can afford it.

The centre has a team of 10 experts, including a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, physician, nutritionist and dentist, who specialise or have experience in treating eating disorders.

"We are using a complete team-based approach, which is the correct way to treat eating disorders as they affect various aspects of an individual's health," said Dr Veena Luthra, a psychiatrist and head of the new programme. "A psychologist or a therapist can't do it alone."

Dr Karine Yazbek, a clinical psychologist who specialises in treating eating disorders at the Dubai community mental health centre Lighthouse Arabia, supports the need for a group approach.

"It has to be a holistic programme that takes care of everything - medically, psychologically, socially and [nutritionally]," Dr Yazbek said. "This is what we don't have here, although it is what works most."

The centre's programme begins with a three-hour assessment, where a patient's psychological, nutritional and medical profile is evaluated and a treatment plan is worked out.

This will typically involve weekly consultations with the team, including group and family therapy.

The assessment costs Dh1,500. Follow-up meetings, which run between 45 minutes and an hour, cost Dh200 a session for group therapy and Dh500 for one-on-one treatment.

Most insurance companies do not cover psychological and psychiatric therapy, leaving those who cannot afford it in the lurch, said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, a consultant psychiatrist and the centre's medical director.

"This may be another factor that discourages people from seeking the treatment they need," Dr Abou Allaban said.

Dr Sven Rohte, chief commercial officer at the national insurance company Daman, said psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy were covered under the premier plan and as optional coverage to employers under enhanced plans.

"Emergency psychiatric treatments that require hospitalisation are covered in all our plans as they are considered emergency cases," Dr Rohte said.

"Psychotherapies by non-psychiatrists and counselling are not covered in our plans as they fall outside the scope of medical insurance."

The basic Daman plan, which is the minimum coverage required by law for all Abu Dhabi residents, does not include psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy, although they are covered for all members of Thiqa, the insurance plan covering Emiratis.

Medical ailments resulting from eating disorders, such as heart complications, would be covered.

Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and director of Lighthouse Arabia, said she believed society did not treat the disorders seriously enough.

"People view it simply as 'just stop eating or don't eat', and don't acknowledge it as a mental illness that could affect the individual medically," Dr Afridi said.

A lack of statistics on the disorders in the UAE makes it challenging to convince the public of the need for such treatment.

The latest data was from a 2010 study of 228 Emirati female students by academics at Zayed University.

They found that nearly a quarter of the sample had abnormal eating attitudes, and nearly three-quarters of participants were unhappy with their body image.

A 2009 study released by UAE University in Al Ain showed that 1.8 per cent of a group of about 900 girls aged 13 to 19 had an eating disorder.

The centre hopes to collate its own data to give a clearer picture of the problem.

"We'd like to find out if the prevalence of this disorder in this population is comparable to the West or is different," Dr Luthra said.

"We'd also see if there's any difference between expatriates and locals."