Untreated Anorexics

Between July 11 and August 11, 2000, I ran a poll on this topic page regarding treatment preferences among eating disorder sufferers. My thanks to all who participated. However, the results were, to say the least, disturbing.

The question was as follows: “Eating Disorder Sufferers Only. In your opinion, which of the following treatments has benefitted you most? (A) individual/group therapy; (B) alternative/complementary therapies; (C) traditional medicine; (D) any combination of the above; and (E) have not been treated.”

Out of 33 respondents, seven (21 percent) preferred individual/group therapy; two (six percent) preferred alternative/complementary therapies; two (six percent) chose “any combination of the above”; and a whopping 22 (67 percent) said they had not been treated. None of those responding said they preferred traditional medicine.

Granted, the polling is not scientific. Several professionals knowledgeable about eating issues informed me that an internet-based sample of this sort may be skewed in favor of people looking for information before making a decision about treatment. Despite this caveat, most of the professionals I queried agreed that the poll results were still disconcerting. They noted that because people suffering from eating disorders are often in denial, they frequently resist suggestions to seek professional help.

“One of the fundamental aspects of anorexia is the value which is attached to it by those with the illness,” writes Lucy Serpell, Ph.D., of Lucy Serpell’s Eating Disorders Resources, in an email. “For various reasons, most people with anorexia do not voluntarily seek treatment because they do not see their disorder as a problem, rather, they see it as a solution to their problems.”

Ms. Serpell, whose doctoral thesis examined eating disorders issues, recommends the following publications for further reading:

Hall, A. “Deciding to stay an anorectic”, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 58, 641-647 (1982).
Vitousek, K., Watson, S., & Wilson, G. T. “Enhancing Motivation for Change in Treatment-Resistant Eating Disorders”, Clinical Psychology Review, 18(4), 391-420 (1998).
Vitousek, K. B., & Ewald, L. S. “Self-Representation in Eating Disorders: A Cognitive Perspective” in Z. V. Segal & S. J. Blatt (Eds.). The Self in Emotional Distress (New York: Guilford Press 1993), pp. 221-257.
Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are complex psychological illnesses which can be triggered by a variety of factors. A December 13, 1999 Associated Press article reprinted in C- Health’s Canoe, a Canadian online service, noted U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher’s report stating that two-thirds of all persons with mental disorders never seek treatment. Clearly, treatment can make the difference between life and death. According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, approximately 2 to 3 percent of those treated for eating disorders die from their condition, but the death rate among untreated anorexics is in the 5 to 20 percent range. The Center cites a study finding a 42 percent weight loss relapse among anorexics after hospital discharge, indicating the importance of continuing intervention and follow-up.

Not only is the quantity of life affected by eating disorders, the quality of life is affected as well. Anorexia nervosa can bring on a whole host of illnesses, including osteoporosis, electrolyte imbalance, and heart problems. See “Signs, Symptoms, and Consequences of Anorexia.”

If you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, now is the time to get treatment. If you suspect you have one, now is the time to get evaluated by a qualified health care professional. Delay will only diminish your chances for recovery.