Journal Club / Research Updates

Who Does and Does Not Seek Treatment for Eating Disorders?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Pixabay (geralt)

If you were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem that you knew was profoundly impacting your life, how likely would you be to seek out help? (If your answer is ‘not so likely,’ perhaps it’s time to read up on the myths of therapy.)

In a study published this fall in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers found that in a large, nationally representative sample, many people with eating disorders never received any help for their eating-related problems. Specifically, about 45% of individuals suffering from an eating disorder never receive ANY help for their eating disorder. Investigators at the University of Kansas sought to understand exactly what kinds of factors (for example, employment, sex, age, co-occurring disorders, etc.) may influence whether or not adults with eating disorders seek care.

Study Specifics

Data for this study was taken from a larger sample of 20,130 adults aged 18 and older. Of this larger sample, 595 participants (78% women, average age: 37 years old) were included in the current analyses. The sample was racially diverse with approximately one-quarter describing themselves as Caucasian and three-quarters describing themselves as belonging to an ethnic-racial minority group. All participants in the subsample had endorsed a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa (30%), bulimia nervosa (32%), or binge eating disorder (48%) at some point in their life. Participants were asked a wide variety of questions by trained interviewers, including if they had ever spoken to a medical doctor or other professionals regarding problems with their eating or weight.

Study Results

Study findings supported sex and age to be predictors of treatment-seeking behavior in people with eating disorders. Specifically, men were significantly less likely to seek treatment than women. Older individuals were also more likely to seek eating disorder treatment than younger individuals.

A number of factors that the investigators hypothesized might be associated with treatment-seeking were not. For example, having multiple psychiatric problems or having symptoms of suicidality did not predict treatment-seeking behavior. Also, social factors such as marital status or reporting the presence or absence of supportive family relationships did not appear related to the likelihood of seeking help for an eating disorder.

What does it all mean?

Findings from this study suggest that younger individuals and men are less likely to seek care for eating-related problems. The authors suggest that increased outreach to these groups is imperative and that outreach ought to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and highlight the importance of treatment in achieving recovery.

For younger people, it is important to emphasize the power of early intervention. With regard to education, increasing the public’s knowledge of how eating disorder symptoms manifest in women and men is essential. The authors also conclude that it may be important to create eating disorder treatment opportunities that specifically address the symptoms that men may experience.

Though the lack of a relationship between a variety of other factors and treatment-seeking behavior were contrary to the investigators’ hypotheses, these null findings are consistent with results from a nationally representative sample of teens with eating disorders. In that study, neither suicidality nor the presence of multiple psychiatric problems predicted seeking treatment.

All research studies are limited in some way. This particular study examined individuals at one time-point, so it was not possible to see how treatment-seeking changed over time among these individuals. Furthermore, this study only examined three eating disorder diagnoses; individuals with other specified eating or feeding disorders (OSFED) were not included in analyses. The size and ethnic-racial diversity of the sample, however, were notable strengths in this study.

Next Steps

If you would like to learn more about seeking treatment, here are some of our thoughts on what you need to know about the overall process, levels of care in eating disorders treatment, and who’s who on the treatment team.

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