Removing the Stigma from Eating Disorders and Mental Health Issues

Contributor: Joanna Marino, PhD and Rebecca Hardin, PsyD of Potomac Behavioral Solutions

Silhouette of woman thinking“Just get over it,”
“Just try harder,”
“You need more willpower,”
“She just wants to be thin,”
“It’s not that serious, everyone does it.”

These are the unfortunate and often stigmatizing statements that are voiced when related to mental health conditions, especially disorders with a persistent course.

The stigma of mental health likely comes from several areas including misunderstanding of the less “tangible” or “biological” nature of mental health concerns and larger-scale cultural beliefs about those with mental health conditions.

The Divide Between Mental and Physical Health

The divide between mental and physical health conditions has long been debated. Thomas Szasz’s (1974) book, “The Myth of Mental Illness” is one of the most notable contributions to the controversy related to the validity of mental health diagnoses.

Szasz notes the difference between a “disease” process in the body and “mental illness” which he considered a “non-biological” judgment from society based on an individual’s behaviors and thoughts.

How Research Has Moved Treatment Forward

ABetterToday-the-professional-staff-at-rehab-center-small-2015-01-08Luckily, psychiatry has advanced since the time of under-defined and abstract diagnoses such as “psychoticism, neuroticism, nervous breakdowns and manic depression.” Research on genetics, neurobiology, and neuropsychology have provided new insights into the evolution and nearly tangible nature of mental health concerns.

Indeed, NIH has focused on funding more research to support research aimed at identifying biological underpinnings of mental health concerns.

Disseminating research findings, especially related to the field’s increasing knowledge of biological relationships in mental health conditions, is likely the most effective way to reduce stigma related to mental health.

Insurance Companies Still Retain the Stigma

An unfortunate clinical demonstration of the continued stigma attached to mental health conditions is evident in the lack of insurance reimbursement received for eating disorder services.

The practice of limiting services to eating disorder patients continues in light of the strong research support that is developing related to the genetic and biological nature of eating disorders (EDs).

Studies on Eating Disorders

89526248For example, eating disorders have often been shown to occur in more than one family member (Lilenfeld et al., 1998; Strober et al., 2000), suggesting that EDs are highly genetic disorders and have trait-like characteristics.

The field has also produced a large body of research suggesting alterations in brain pathways (Treasure & Campbell, 1994), brain structures (Craig, 2002; Phillips et al., 2003), neuropeptides (Morley & Blundell, 1988; Schwartz et al., 2000), and neurotransmitters (Blundell, 1984; Cooper, 1996; Jimerson et al, 1997; Kaye et al., 1988, 1990, 1991; Siegfried et al., 2004) that modulate feeding behaviors (i.e., restricting appetite), impulse control (possibly linked to binge eating and purging), and metabolism regulation.

Most telling is that many of these brain-based alterations have been shown to regulate after treatment and recovery from eating disorders (Kaye et al., 2004, Kaye, 2008).

Preventative Care Isn’t There

Even with the aforementioned research support, patients, families, and providers continue to face limited reimbursement for care, especially coverage for those who aren’t “suicidal” or “medically unstable.”

The continued limited coverage of treatment has led to several legal cases against insurance companies and the development of specialized case management and attorney firms (e.g., Kantor & Kantor) to aid patients in receiving reimbursement for much needed treatment.

Cultural Stereotypes Are Holding People Back from Treatment

man and womanBeyond the misunderstanding of the biology behind mental health conditions, continued cultural standards seem to perpetuate mental health conditions. One prime example is the belief that eating disorders are only female disorders. Changes to the United States diagnostic system will hopefully begin to challenge these beliefs.

Specifically, the DSM-5 enhanced the diagnostic criteria of eating disorders to increase awareness of significant differences in binge eating and overeating, to account for the inability of males and pre-menarche/peri-menopause females to meet the amenorrhea criteria of Anorexia Nervosa, to acknowledge the role food and eating have across cultures, and remove the arbitrary nature of BMI as related to ED behaviors.

The field of mental health continues to advance and continued focus on disseminating research will reduce the stigma tied to eating disorder and improve the clinical care via insurance reimbursement of much needed services. Continued education and advocacy in mental health will likely continue to help prioritize cultural understandings of mental health concerns.


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The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 12th, 2015
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