Examining Community Beliefs About Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder surrounded by stigma and misunderstanding. For many years, it has been falsely understood as a lifestyle choice favored by white middle class teenagers. Instead, the disorder is experienced by both genders, all races and across all economic levels.

Anorexia is characterized by the obsessive control of caloric intake. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, including depression and schizophrenia. Those who suffer from it may take years to admit to loved ones that they have a problem. Often, the reluctance to disclose the condition may be due to perceived misunderstandings about the disorder and the stigma that comes with anorexia.

A recent study examined the level of recognition in a community, as well as measuring the community beliefs about the disorder. Its findings appear in a recent issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

The researchers sought to measure the mental health literacy (MHL), and especially recognition of anorexia in a community sample including male and female respondents. They also wanted to understand the beliefs regarding treatment that were held by the group, who were all between the ages of 15 and 94.

The researchers presented a vignette to the participants, in which a woman was profiled with symptoms of anorexia. After the participants had an opportunity to read the vignette, they were asked to complete a structured interview focused on the recognition of the problem posed by the vignette and their beliefs about treatment.

The results of the study showed that most of the participants were able to identify the problem in the vignette as an eating disorder. Only 16.1 percent, however, were able to name the problem as anorexia nervosa.

Many of the respondents (32.5 percent) misidentified the primary problem as being low self-esteem. Regarding treatment, the participants identified general practitioners, psychologists or psychiatrists as the first choice in seeking assistance and treatment. The most helpful treatment, according to the respondents, was obtaining information about the condition, along with available treatment options.

Less than one-third of the participants stated that they believed that the woman profiled in the vignette could achieve a full recovery. Overall, the best understanding of anorexia was found to be among younger, more highly educated and metropolitan domiciled women.

The lowest level of understanding of anorexia was found to be among males and among those who had less access to health care.

However, the researchers believe that the findings present a promising improvement in general understanding of anorexia. Despite the misconception that anorexia results from low self-esteem and the confusion expressed between the characteristics of anorexia versus bulimia, there were a large number of participants who named mental health care in their assessment of preferred treatment strategies.

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