Fighting the Stigma Attached to Eating Disorders

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2006 Volume 17, Number 3
©2006 Gürze Books

Only a small percentage of persons with eating disorders ever seek treatment. One possible reason may be the fear of being stigmatized for having an eating disorder.

Maria-Christina Stewart, Pamela Keel, PhD, and R. Steven Sciavo, PhD recently a survey in the streets of Boston, asking 91 people to evaluate certain characteristics of four fictitious persons: one with asthma, one with schizophrenia, a healthy person, and a person with anorexia nervosa (AN) (Int J Eat Disord 2006;39:320). The people surveyed were given one of four questionnaires, identical except for the order of the measures presented.

AN elicited the most negative responses

Evaluations of personal characteristics were most negative for persons with AN. Respondents believed the fictitious person with AN was most to blame for his/her condition, and was best able to “pull himself/herself together if he or she wanted to.” There was a general consensus that the eating disorder was probably just an attempt to gain attention. The respondents also felt that biological factors were least likely to be involved in the disorder.

According to the authors, stigmatization of people with AN may lead to decreased self-esteem and increased shame, which in turn may prolong the recovery process from AN and increase the possibility of relapse. They feel that AN patients may benefit from treatment approaches that work to reduce the stigma of the disease. In addition, although grassroots movements, such as the Changing Minds Campaign directed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, seek to decease stigmatization against mental illness, eating disorders have largely remained on the sidelines of such organizations. Researchers and clinicians have an important role to play in reaching out to people with eating disorders and their families to give them information to help fight inaccurate stereotypes about people with eating disorders.

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