Public perception of eating disorders clouded by false beliefs, study shows

Public understanding of eating disorders is poor, leading to some damaging beliefs, including that people with eating disorders are more responsible for their condition than those with some other mental disorders, according to psychological research being presented at the 47th APS Annual Conference in Perth this week.

La Trobe University researcher Rachel Gold said inaccurate community perceptions needed to be combated to ensure sufferers, and the wider community, understood the severity of eating disorders and the need for treatment.

“Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that typically emerge during adolescence or early adulthood, but can last well into adulthood if not treated,” she said.

“However, we found there was a lack of knowledge about the seriousness of these conditions and negative beliefs about the level of responsibility of sufferers.

 “It’s really important that people understand eating disorders have significant physical and emotional effects. Professional help is required, and there are effective psychological programs available.”

Ms Gold undertook a systematic literature review of 31 studies conducted over three decades, to examine knowledge and beliefs about eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia.

She found that inaccurate beliefs about eating disorders and sufferers were common, including the belief that eating disorders were a lifestyle choice and that people with an eating disorder were “vain” or “attention-seeking”.

“Unfortunately, in many cases, eating disorders are perceived as not being as serious as disorders such as depression or schizophrenia,” Ms Gold said. “There is the perception that people with eating disorders have more control over their condition than people with schizophrenia, for example.”

The study also found that some common misconceptions extend to people mistakenly attributing positive aspects to eating disorders. Some considered disordered eating behaviour and consequences such as food restriction or low body weight as desirable or thought that people with eating disorders were strong-willed and that such behaviour was admirable.

“Often friends and family are the impetus behind people seeking help so it’s important that general levels of knowledge are improved, that people recognise it is a serious concern that requires treatment and know where they can access help,” Ms Gold said.
Ms Gold is now undertaking a study involving 470 adolescents — an at-risk group — to identify which messages will successfully reduce stigma and increase likelihood of people seeking treatment.

 “Preliminary results suggest that conveying the seriousness of eating disorders and emphasising that people need understanding and support is most effective,” she said.

People requiring help with an eating disorder can locate a local psychologist with relevant expertise by calling the APS Find A Psychologist Service on 1800 497 333 or visiting www.psychology.org.au.

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Rachel Gold will present her research at the 47th APS Annual Conference in Perth on Saturday 29 September 2012.

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The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,500 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.