Anorexia Nervosa

Involuntary Treatment of Patients With Life-Threatening Anorexia Nervosa

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
By Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS


Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Predictors of mortality include chronicity of the illness, critically low body weight, and binging and purging behavior. Delusional beliefs body image, coupled with impaired judgment and cognition caused by starvation, often result in these patients adamantly resisting efforts to treat them. Guardianship, although useful in assisting with medical treatment decisions for patients with anorexia nervosa who are critically medically ill, is usually an inadequate intervention with respect to psychiatric treatment for these patients. Despite the severity and risk of the illness, there is often reluctance among providers to initiate involuntary treatment for patients with anorexia nervosa. Recent legal cases involving patients with anorexia nervosa have addressed the role of the committing court in authorizing treatment decisions and, in one case, opining that a patient was best served by receiving treatment in another state. Other related concerns addressed by the courts include ensuring that appropriate criteria are used for hospital admission, clarifying that the definition of grave disability as it pertains to anorexia does not require that the patient be close to death and that medications are often warranted in treating patients with the disease.

Written by

Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS

Dr. Philip S. Mehler began his career at Denver Health more than 35 years ago and was formerly its Chief of Internal Medicine and then Denver Health’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) until he was promoted…

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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