A recent study revealed that only 20% of teenagers struggling with an eating disorder seek treatment from a medical professional. As eating disorders may be difficult to diagnose and manage in this population, this figure further complicates an already challenging issue.
This study utilized data collected from a national sample of adolescents ages 13 to 18, to identify how many met traditional criteria for an eating disorder. Factors including eating disorder type, socioeconomic data, and mental health comorbidities affected the rate of likelihood to seek help.
For those struggling with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, individuals were 2.4 times and 1.9 times more likely, respectively, to receive intervention than teens with binge eating disorder. Another factor that differentiated the likelihood of seeking treatment was socioeconomic status and familial education. Teens with parents having a college education were 1.8 times more likely to seek treatment than those with no college education.
A final factor of great significance was history of mental health treatment. Those who had previously received mental health services for the treatment of emotional or behavioral problems were 1.7 times more likely to seek treatment for an eating disorder. This may be as a result of prior knowledge of procedures and level of comfort with treatment. In fact, teens demonstrate treatment-seeking comfort with age. Adolescents age 17-18 being 4.4 times more likely than those age 13-14. No reasoning was provided here, though an assumption can be made that as individual develops and matures, problem-solving capabilities have been solidified and strengthened.
As stated by Lauren Forrest, MA, graduate assistant at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, “These findings highlight how important it is to study individuals with eating disorders who have and have not sought treatment, so that we can be sure the field’s knowledge base on eating disorders aren’t based primarily on a subset of folks who are seeking treatment.”
Forrest goes on to express how surprised she was at how seldom teens will seek treatment, despite a number of experiences interacting with healthcare professionals. One revelation that came out of the study was that girls are twice as likely to seek treatment for eating disorders as boys. This issue is compounded by the frequency of healthcare professionals and parents being less equipped to recognize eating disorders in boys. This finding highlights the importance of training all mental health professionals, educators and parents alike to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in males.
According to Laura Roias, program director at Walden Behavioral Care, another factor that may affect a teen’s likelihood of seeking treatment may be social stigma. Teens often are fearful that drawing attention to their struggle may affect their level of control. Additionally, in a society obsessed with thinness and “healthy eating”, there may be a failure to recognize their eating behaviors as abnormal.
These study findings suggest that a parent, healthcare professional or community member’s ability to identify the symptoms and signs of an eating disorder and support and/or guidance to a teen with an eating disorder may have a profound impact. Assisting a teen in differentiating appropriate vs. unhealthy habits and messages about food and weight may help to guide a teen toward seeking treatment. Given the study’s demonstration that eating disorders may present differently in different populations and levels of awareness and motivation vary, it is the responsibility of healthcare providers everywhere to learn to better recognize, address and treat eating disorders in both genders. When addressing a teen who you fear may be struggling with an eating disorder, be sure to take a non-judgmental and supportive stance, thus increasing the likelihood that a teen may seek professional help.
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