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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Do People Really Think That Eating Disorders Are Silly, Continued?

I have to change my opinion following my last blog about how people feel about eating disorders.

Reading some research yesterday it would appear that people do view eating disorders more negatively than other mental health conditions including schizophrenia, at least in some aspects. People with eating disorders are viewed with significantly more negative stereotypes overall, and in particular they are viewed as more unhealthy, more disgusting, more vain and more isolated that are people with depression, OCD and schizophrenia. And yes, there was a high level of agreement that the eating disorders are self inflicted conditions.

But there are also positive stereotypes associated with eating disorders, such as being focussed, and  having high standards  - suggesting that positive and negative stereotypes can exist together and do not cancel each other out.

We have a job to raise awareness of these conditions. Why? So people can get the treatment they need and can come forward rather than suffer in silence. This can be done by having awareness days, memorials, fund raising actitivities and so on. The result of all this is that far more people know about eating disorders than they did when I started my eating disorder career.

But publicity brings our attention toward the worst of eating disorder symptoms. You cannot really talk about anorexia without showing the lengths some people go to as a result of the illness. We cannot talk about bulimia without pulling attention to its symptoms, which are highly unpleasant. A teenage girl at one of my PHSE sessions in school fainted when looking at a short film clip of someone binge eating from a pan full of spaghetti, and I never dared show the film again.

We have had many years of exposure to the reality of eating disorders with public awareness campaigns, reality TV shows and even sensitive portrayal of the disorders in TV and radio "soaps."  The cost of such portrayals is to unwittingly reinforce the negative stereotypes of these problems.

So how do we get the balance right?  Will more media exposure help people to get help sooner or prevent them from getting help by raising the stigma associated with their problem?

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