Public Understanding
This category contains 10 posts

Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Useful, Useless, or Worse?

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week came and went (in the US, anyway). Posters were shared, liked, and tweeted. Pretty (but often misguided) infographics made the rounds on the internet. Local ED groups visited schools and college campuses to educate students about eating disorders. To, you know, increase awareness. 

The thing is, awareness is not always a good thing. For one, as Carrie over at ED Bites mentioned, there’s a whole lot of misinformation masquerading as fact. And two, awareness campaigns, even when the information in them is correct, may have unintended consequences, like, for example, increasing stigma or self-stigma.

Moreover, not all approaches to increasing awareness or decreasing stigma are equally effective, and the effectiveness of a particular approach may differ depending on the population studied.

So, what about the effectiveness of EDAW? In 2012, Kathleen Tillman and colleagues published a study looking at the impact of a “campus-wide, week-long series of psycho-educational and awareness program designed for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.”

In particular, they assessed individuals’ willingness to seek help, their levels …

Problematic Labelling: The Case of “Drunkorexia”

Recently, I was browsing the Twittersphere and came across (yet another) tweet about so-called “drunkorexia,” or the phenomenon of drinking to excess coupled with restrictive behaviours around food. After firing off a mildly miffed tweet bemoaning our societal tendency to add the suffix “orexia” to all “new” potentially problematic behaviours around food, I took to Scholar’s Portal to see if academics, too, were using this term. I wondered if “drunkorexia” was piquing scholarly interest, or just circulating in media headlines.

Beyond its problematic moniker, coupling problem drinking and restrictive eating is a phenomenon that might be worth delving into in greater detail, particularly if, as the reports claim, its incidence is rising. Barry & Piazza-Gardner (2012) explored the co-occurrence of weight maintenance behaviours and alcohol consumption, and their article clarifies what people mean when they say “drunkorexia.” I’ll get more into my issues with this terminology following a brief overview of the authors’ study.

Alcohol and “Weight Management” Behaviours

Barry & Piazza-Gardner begin their article with reference to an interesting trend observed by those studying problem drinking in …

Framing Eating Disorders As “Brain Diseases” Might Lead to More Stigma

Many–myself included–assume that emphasizing the biological basis of mental disorders will reduce mental health stigma. The idea is that it will place less blame and personal responsibility on the affected individual.

Still, when it comes to raising awareness and reducing stigma, we need to make sure that our assumptions hold up to the evidence, otherwise we run the risk of playing a game of broken telephone. Given that this is Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the United States, the topic is particularly timely. Those of us involved in some aspect of mental health awareness don’t want to be saying “x” only to have be interpreted as “y.”

So, the question is–does a biological or genetic framing of eating  disorders lead individuals to hold more positive views of eating disorder sufferers and place less blame on “weak will”?

This is precisely what Matthias Angermeyer and colleagues asked almost 1,350 individuals from two German cities. Angermeyer had them read two vignettes about a woman with either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (see below) and answer a series of questions aimed at …

What’s Wrong with How We Talk About Eating Disorders in the Media and in ED Communities – Part 2

This is a follow-up to my last post on what I think can be improved in how we talk about eating disorders in the media and in ED communities. If you haven’t read my last post, I strongly recommend doing so before reading this one. My focus in this post will be on what individuals with a history of EDs and ED organizations can do to improve how eating disorders are perceived by the general public.

(Sidenote on my last post: I feel I didn’t emphasize enough that I used Emma Woolf’s quote as an example and a starting point. I’m confident I’ve made the same blunders that I am now speaking about. It is okay. I think the important thing is to think about our future actions, as opposed to dwelling on the past. My goal isn’t to single anyone out. Woolf is not the first, the last, or the only person to have said things of that nature–her quote was just on my mind since I saw it just a few days ago on tumblr.)

FIRST, FOR THOSE

What’s Wrong with How We Talk About Eating Disorders in the Media and in ED Communities – Part 1

I’m going to do something different today. I’m going to talk about some of the problems I see in how eating disorders are discussed by some media organizations, ED awareness groups, and ED advocates.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of everything that’s wrong (and there will be a follow-up). It is my personal opinion and I strongly encourage readers to leave comments if you disagree with me or feel that I’m missing something important.

I saw this quote on tumblr two days ago:

Anorexia is a young person’s game and I don’t have the time or energy to play any more.

This quote is amazing for all the wrong reasons. It is so wrong, so harmful, and embodies so much of what’s wrong with mainstream ED discourse. It was written by Emma Woolf. I traced the quote back to this document put out by the UK organization ED awareness organization b-eat.

Let me be clear: I do not care who said this quote, or what was meant by it, or what context it was said in. …

Can Socioeconomic Status Predict Mental Health Literacy?

Is there an association between socioeconomic status (SES) and mental health literacy? Can we predict the extent of an individual’s knowledge about mental disorders based on how much money they make, how much education they’ve received, or how far up the career ladder they’ve climbed?

That is the question that Olaf von dem Knesebeck and colleagues attempted to answer in a paper published recently in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 

The authors interviewed 2,014 men and women, residents of two German cities Hamburg and Munich, using a telephone survey. The split is roughly 50/50 between men and women respondents and the mean age was 47.5. The authors presented each interviewee with two vignettes out of three (one on depression, one on schizophrenia, and one on eating disorders).

The gender in the depression and schizophrenia vignettes was varied 50/50 between male and female patients, but all vignettes about eating disorders (one on bulimia, one on anorexia) were about female patients. After reading the vignettes, the respondents were asked to identify the disorder, in an open ended question, then more …

Genetics: Friend or Foe in Ending Eating Disorder Stigma?

Refrigerator mothers or the idealization of thin models? Toxic families or toxins in our diets? Oh, if only determining the cause (because it has to be just one, right?) of eating disorders was that simple. All behaviour has a biological basis, a neurobiological correlate. The way our brains function—and the resulting behaviours— is due to complex interactions between our genome, epigenome, and the environment. Eating disorders do not have a single cause; we cannot put the blame solely on families, or thin models, vanity or genetics.

As a science grad student, I am interested in how non-scientists interpret scientific findings on mental disorders, particularly eating disorders. With respect to eating disorders, I am interested in how patients’ understanding of the science shapes the way they view themselves and their eating disorders, as well as how it shapes their treatment and recovery.

In a recent paper, Michele Easter wanted to find out just that; she wanted to know how patients with eating disorders view the increasing focus of genetics in eating disorders on ED stigma. She interviewed 50 women with …

Naomi Wolf Got Her Facts Wrong. Really, Really, Really Wrong.

I’m working on a post about the role of serotonin in the development and maintenance of anorexia, but it is taking me some time as I want to include a sufficient amount of background information. So, in the meantime, I’m going to blog about a short paper that was brought to my attention by Sarah. As you might have guessed by the title, the paper’s author, Casper Schoemaker, wanted to do some fact-checking on Naomi Wolf’s first book, titled The Beauty Myth. A quick glance at the Amazon ratings reveals that a lot of people like it, and many find it shocking and “eye-opening”. Now, I’ll admit: I haven’t read it, and I don’t plan to. (I don’t read books like this.) But I have come across blatantly wrong statistics on eating disorders from people citing her work.

(Books are not peer-reviewed. The main thing you need to get a book published is to convince the publisher that people will buy it. There’s no guarantee that the claims in a particular book are correct. A lot of times …

UK vs. US in Media Reporting on Eating Disorders: Who Does it Better?

Given the popularity of my post on how the media portrays eating disorders, I thought I’d do a follow-up entry by looking at more recent and comprehensive study on the topic. Specifically, I am going to review Shepherd & Seale’s 2010 paper, which built on the findings of O’Hara & Clegg-Smith, with a UK-focus. In particular, they: (1) compared UK and US media reporting of EDs, (2) tracked changes of in ED coverage over a 17-year period, and (3) studied the differences between newspapers with different target audiences.

Shepherd & Seale reiterate much of what O’Hara & Clegg-Smith wrote: ED specialists and researchers understand that EDs are complex, multi-factorial diseases with complex genetic and environmental underpinnings, that they are often associated with many medical complications and that they are hard to treat. The public, however, largely puts the blame on the patient and/or their parents, viewing it as a “moral failing… underestimating the severity and ease of recovery”, and viewing it as a largely young white female disease. (Unfortunately, some clinicians have this view of EDs as well

Chances Are, What You Know About Eating Disorders is Wrong

Although clinicians (and medical professionals not specializing in eating disorders) often carry a lot of false beliefs about EDs, the public is even worse. Way worse. The portrayal of eating disorders in the news contributes to the myriad of myths and misconceptions that surround EDs. O’Hara and Clegg-Smith wanted to find out how exactly newspapers “contribute to shaping public perception of EDs.” 

It is awful when doctors are dismissive and ignorant, but it is even worse when you encounter these attitudes from your friends and family. When they not only don’t get it, they don’t want to get it. As O’Hara & Clegg-Smith point out, this ignorance and “disconnect potentially prevents timely ED diagnosis and reinforces a stigma that limits treatment availability.”

While researchers and ED specialists increasingly understand that eating disorders are “caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors” (for example, evidence from twin studies suggests that genetic factors account for >50% of the risk for developing an ED), the public does not. 

Surveys of what the public thinks about eating disorders and those struggling …

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