A New Awareness

Tomorrow, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) begins.

NEDAW is a public health initiative designed to educate people about eating disorders. While I applaud the good intentions and effort that go into planning and executing NEDAW, I will not be participating in any of the events. I do not believe that the messages conveyed during NEDAW are particularly helpful: instead of correcting the myths and misconceptions associated with eating disorders, NEDAW just seems to perpetuate them.

For example, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) posted the following on their website in under the heading Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2012:

“Through intentional activities, conversations and events we can all help create an environment that redefines outdated thinking, reduces the stigma associated with weight, body shape, or size, and inspires someone to reconsider an unhealthy attitude or behavior.”

There are several assumptions imbedded in this sentence:
• The environment causes eating disorders by making people feel dissatisfied with their bodies.
• People develop eating disorders because they are insecure, vain, shallow, appearance-focused, or overly influenced by the media.
• By altering the messages people receive from their environment and eliminating the “thin is in” culture, we can prevent or cure eating disorders.
• Overcoming an eating disorder is about reconsidering unhealthy attitudes or behaviors.
• If you have a friend or family member suffering from an eating disorder, you should try to inspire him/her to reconsider his/her unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.
• The unhealthy attitudes and behaviors associated with eating disorders are willful and consciously chosen.

Of course, none of these statements are explicit, but they don’t need to be – the public will draw these conclusions on their own.

I wholeheartedly agree that our culture is toxic and that the messages we receive about body image, beauty, food, and sexuality are horrific and damaging. I do not object to these principles at all – quite the contrary – but I do object to focusing on these messages during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

The current public health message associated with eating disorders awareness week is something akin to “Girls are dying to be thin, so let’s all love our bodies!” The themes of NEDAW revolve around thinness, body image, and the media. The concept of psychiatric illness is lost. Of course, it does not help that most eating disorder treatment professionals, eating disorder organizations, tabloid magazines, and recovering eating disorder patients espouse the same body-image centered messages.

I would like to change the public health mantra to something along the lines of “Eating disorders are highly heritable brain-based illnesses with severe psychiatric and medical symptoms.” My ideal public health message for EDAW would also contain the following points:

• Most symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are triggered or perpetuated by malnutrition. For those who are biologically vulnerable, dieting can trigger a cascade of self-perpetuating symptoms which lead to life-long psychiatric disability or death.
• Body dysmorphia is a symptom, not a cause, of an eating disorder. It is not present in all eating disorder patients, and it bears little relation to the typical woman’s body image distress.
• Early, aggressive intervention offers the best hope for full recovery.
• An eating disorder is a brain disease, not a weight problem.
• There are a variety of methods for treating eating disorders. Most of the eating disorder treatment available is NOT based on current science or evidence-based practice. Patients and parents must be proactive in finding effective treatment.
• Anosognosia – a neurologically-based inability to recognize one’s illness – is a symptom of Anorexia Nervosa. Therefore, patients should not be expected to “want to get well.” It is up to the patient’s loved ones and clinicians to ensure that he/she gets appropriate treatment as soon as possible.

These are the points that the public needs to hear. These are the points that will truly change the way eating disorders are perceived.

There are many eating disorder treatment professionals out there who will participate in a NEDAW walk or rally, or wear a “Love your body” T-shirt, or attend a screening of “America the Beautiful,” and then head to the office to practice outdated, ineffective treatment.

Next week, I will be promoting eating disorders awareness by providing my patients with the most current, evidence-based information and treatment, and by spreading scientifically-sound information through my blog and through my conversations with people. Please join me!

Insights on Insight

Patient “insight” is a much-discussed topic in psychotherapy. Most clinicians believe that developing insight is a crucial aspect of recovery from a mental illness. Many clinicians believe that insight is a necessary prerequisite for change. There are some types of treatment, such as psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, which are based entirely on the development of insight. These types of treatment are predicated on the assumption that increased insight naturally leads to positive behavior change and recovery from mental illness.

These assumptions originated with Sigmund Freud, who believed that mental illness was the result of unconscious psychic conflict. He believed by bringing this conflict into the patient’s conscious awareness, it would no longer have power over the patient and the neurotic or psychotic symptoms would disappear.

The notion that exploration into one’s innermost psyche leads to healing is alluring and romantic. It makes for great novels, memoirs, and movies. The problem is, it rarely works this way in real life. While most people suffering from mental illnesses do indeed experience tremendous inner psychological conflict, there is no evidence that this inner conflict is the cause of any mental illness or that gaining insight into the conflict will promote recovery. Insight, as discussed in psychoanalytic theory or pop psychology, refers to something along the lines of “why I am the way I am” or “why I developed this mental illness.”

There are several reasons why this type of insight alone rarely leads to recovery:

1.) Contrary to popular belief, we do not know what causes most mental illnesses. We may know what factors may trigger, perpetuate, or exacerbate the illness. For example, a loss of some sort often triggers or exacerbates depression, and dieting often triggers or exacerbates an eating disorder. We may know what types of treatment are effective for certain illnesses. For example, we know that DBT is effective in treating borderline personality disorder. But any notion about causality is, at this point in time, largely speculative. So if we don’t really know what causes mental illness, insight into the supposed cause will not promote recovery.

2.) The “insights” encouraged by the therapist are often based upon antiquated theories of mental illnesses which have no empirical support (e.g., that depression is “anger turned inward”). These theories may feel good, or make intuitive sense, or seem to validate the patient’s suffering, but that doesn’t make them accurate or useful in terms of recovery.

3.) We learn and mature emotionally through experience. Thoughts and feelings follow from behavior, not the other way around. Simply knowing why you think the way you think, or why you feel the way you feel, does not change your thoughts or feelings. What does help change your thoughts and feelings is by acting opposite to them. So, for example, if you are feeling depressed and lethargic, sitting around the house all day by yourself trying to figure out why you’re depressed doesn’t make you less depressed. However, dragging yourself off the couch to go for a brisk walk outside, and then inviting some friends over to watch a funny movie, may very well lift your spirits, at least a little bit.

4.) Our neural pathways are rewired not through developing insight, but through consistent, repetitive practice of new behaviors. You will not become a good athlete by watching sports or reading about sports. Rather, you develop and hone your athletic skills by consistent practice and physical conditioning. This is why the behavioral therapies such as CBT, DBT, ACT, and FBT are so much more effective than insight-oriented therapies such as psychodynamic therapy.

5.) Some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa, involve a symptom called anosognosia, which is a brain-based lack of insight. Because of abnormalities in brain function, individuals with anosognosia are unable to recognize that they are ill even when loved ones are extremely worried. For instance, a person with anorexia nervosa may feel great and perceive her body as normal and healthy, even when she is markedly underweight and clearly suffering from the physical and psychological effects of malnourishment. And an individual with bipolar mania may perceive himself as “on top of the world” and vehemently resist intervention as loved ones stand by and watch him make one self-destructive decision after another. Individuals with anosognosia should not be expected to seek treatment on their own, or to “want to recover,” because they will not have the insight to do so until they are well on their way to recovery.

The types of insights described above are relatively useless. However, there is another type of insight which results from successful treatment and is one of many markers of a psychologically healthy individual. Insight, as I conceptualize it, is best described by both the dictionary definition and the wikipedia definition. Thus, in order to successfully manage or overcome a mental illness, one must be able to discern the true nature of their mental illness and must understand cause and effect insofar as it applies to their symptoms. The following insights are extremely important to recovery:

1.) Insight into the fact that one has a mental illness. This element of insight includes acceptance of the fact that the illness is, to some extent, out of the person’s control, and cannot simply be wished away or overcome by willpower.

2.) Insight into the symptoms of one’s mental illness and how they manifest. This insight includes the ability to recognize signs and symptoms in oneself and the skills to eliminate, manage, or cope with the symptoms when they occur.

3.) Insight into the effects of following, or not following, the treatment plan and clinician’s recommendations. This insight involves understanding not only what the clinician is doing or recommending, but why she is doing or recommending it. That is, understanding the mechanism of change.

4.) Understanding how various choices one makes impact the course of one’s illness. For example, a person with a mood disorder needs to learn that by getting 8-9 hours of sleep nightly, exercising regularly, taking medication daily, and monitoring mood changes on a daily basis are essential to stabilizing moods. She will also need to learn that getting drunk on her 21st birthday, traveling across time zones for vacation without making up missed sleep, missing her medication for two days because she forgot to get refills on time, or burning the candle at both ends during final exams, will likely trigger a return of symptoms, even though “normal people” do these things all the time without a second thought. “But that sucks!” They exclaim. “That’s not fair!” They are correct on both counts.

I believe that a patient must develop all four of these insights during treatment. It is the clinician’s responsibility to assist the patient in developing these insights. It is also the clinician’s responsibility to ensure that the patient’s family members develop these insights during treatment, as it is often a parent or a spouse who will first notice the signs of relapse and encourage a return to treatment. This is especially true in disorders characterized by anosognosia.

The Price of Assumption

Recently, there have been heated debates between clinicians and parent advocates regarding the role of environmental and family issues in eating disorders. Some people insist that family dynamics and environmental factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Others bristle at the possibility. Some people say “families don’t cause eating disorders, BUT…” Others fixate on the “but” and disregard everything else.

My views on this issue are complex. Thankfully, my views became much clearer to me as I was watching an episode of the E! True Hollywood Story entitled Britney Spears: The Price of Fame. Now I am able to articulate my views on this topic in a way that most people can understand.

Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have reported that Britney Spears has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to unnamed “sources close to the pop star,” Spears was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder during her public meltdown and psychiatric hospitalization in 2008. While I have not treated Britney and thus cannot ethically make a diagnosis, I will say that her erratic behavior circa 2006-2008 could be explained by a bipolar diagnosis, and that the rate of bipolar disorder is thought to be quite high amongst people in the creative and performing arts.

Scientists now know that bipolar disorder is a neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted disease. However, rather than focusing on the neurobiology or genetics of bipolar disorder, The E! True Hollywood Story explored various influences in Britney’s life that fueled her self-destructive behavior. Clearly, this type of commentary is far more interesting to the typical E! viewer than neurobiology, my own preferences notwithstanding. Several mental health professionals were interviewed and gave their opinions as to the influence of early stardom, family problems, a stage mom, excessive fame, and extreme wealth on the pop star’s behavior. Sadly, though, the viewer is led to believe that these environmental and family issues are the cause of Britney’s downfall.

Did Britney’s family or environment cause her bipolar disorder? No. Neither family nor environment can cause a brain disorder.

Did her family or environment fuel her bipolar disorder? Yes. And here’s how: Let’s say Britney had taken a different path in life, married a plumber instead of Kevin Federline and worked as a preschool teacher instead of a pop star. Let’s say she stayed in her small Louisiana hometown, never dabbled in drugs or heavy drinking, went to bed every night at a decent hour, and maintained close, age appropriate relationships with her family and good friends, making a decent living but nothing more. Would she still have developed bipolar disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe she would have (remember, most people with bipolar disorder are not pop stars, but regular people). However, her disease would have been much more easily diagnosed and treated if she had been surrounded and supported by normal, loving people who could influence her in a positive way. As it happened, her disease was certainly protracted and exacerbated by the lifestyle of a pop star, which includes late nights, insufficient sleep, excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and endless amounts of power and money.

If Britney’s therapist had held a family session with Lynne and Jamie Spears and Kevin Federline in attempts to “explore the family dynamics which contributed to the disorder,” that would be a complete waste of time. The elder Spears’ and Mr. Federline – the very people who are in the best position to help Britney recover – would have felt subtly blamed and marginalized. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by approaching a brain disorder in this fashion.

The most ideal situation for Britney would be for her parents and K-Fed (and any other people close to her) to work together to provide family-based support to help her recover and to help eliminate any environmental or family factors which may be fueling her disease. It would be most helpful for her family members to be educated about bipolar disorder and understand that it is a biologically-based brain disease that she did not choose and that they did not cause. The family would also need to know that certain environmental factors, such as pregnancy and childbirth, stress, insufficient sleep, drugs and alcohol, medication non-compliance, or excessive emotional distress, can trigger episodes and exacerbate symptoms. The family would need to learn pro-active ways to help Britney manage her environment in a way that is most conducive to achieving mental and physical wellness.

In considering this example, it is important to bear in mind that people with bipolar disorder run the gamut from pop stars to professors to businessmen to truck drivers to homeless panhandlers. Families of people with bipolar disorder also run the gamut – some are amazing and supportive, others are average, and some are downright abusive. If treatment for bipolar disorder is to be successful, the clinician must perform a thorough evaluation of the patient and family, and the information gleaned from that assessment should be used to guide treatment decisions. A good clinician would not presume that the family of a person with bipolar disorder is dysfunctional or abusive, or that family dynamics caused or contributed to the development of the disorder. Similarly, a good clinician would not presume that the family is healthy or that there is nothing the family needs to change. Quite simply, a good clinician would not assume anything – she would simply perform an assessment and tailor her approach to the strengths, limitations, and realities of that particular patient and family, in line with the most recent evidence-based research.

Eating disorders are also neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted diseases which patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Family issues and environment certainly can fuel eating disorders by encouraging dieting or glorifying thinness, by making diagnosis more difficult or treatment less accessible, or by making recovery harder than it needs to be.

All eating disorder patients have a biological brain disease which most likely would have arisen, at some point in time and to some degree, regardless of family or environment. Some patients have family or environmental issues which are fueling their disorder, and some do not. If such familial or environmental issues exist, they usually become quite obvious if you do a thorough assessment. These family or environmental issues will need to be addressed in treatment, not because they caused the eating disorder, but because they can trigger or exacerbate symptoms and interfere with full recovery.

But if there are no obvious familial or environmental issues fueling the disorder, please don’t waste time searching for them. You aren’t doing the patient or the family any good by “being curious,” or “just exploring.” You are simply satisfying your own voyeuristic drive, as I fulfilled mine by watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Britney Spears.

Blame it on the Brain

There is much debate amongst mental health professionals as to whether mental illnesses should be called “brain disorders.” A large part of the disagreement, as I see it, comes from a lack of consensus as to the meaning of the term “brain disorder.”

I conceptualize a brain disorder as a disease or disorder that originates in the brain and influences mood, thinking, learning, and/or behavior. By my definition, all disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) are brain disorders, including autism, ADHD, major depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, reactive attachment disorder, Alzheimers, and schizophrenia.

To me, “brain disorder” does NOT mean:
• Environment does not play a role in its development
• Environment does not play a role in recovery
• It is 100% biologically based
• It is 100% genetically inherited
• It can only be treated by physician or with a pill
• Psychological interventions won’t help
• The patient can’t do anything to influence the outcome

None of the above is true for ANY brain disorder, whether we’re talking about one that is commonly accepted as “biologically based” or not. In fact, I don’t know of any physical disease or medical condition in which any of the above is true.

Some people in my field are willing to apply the term “brain disorder” to some illnesses which are widely accepted to have a neurobiological basis (e.g., schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimers) but adamantly resist using this term to describe eating disorders, depression, or anxiety disorders, which they perceive to be something else. The underlying assumptions here, which few people would openly admit, are that some mental disorders are legitimate diseases whereas others are choices or responses to the environment; some mental illnesses are serious and deserve to be treated (and funded by insurance) whereas others are the patient’s or the family’s fault, so treatment is optional.

Clinicians who oppose the use of the term “brain disorder” to describe certain mental illnesses typically fall into one or more of the following categories:
• They don’t have a strong science background
• They lack basic knowledge of biology and genetics
• They suffer from (or have suffered from) the mental disorder in question and are personally offended by the term because they believe it invalidates their personal experience
• They feel that their professional identity, the work they have done for many years, is threatened by acknowledgment of the neurobiological basis of mental illness
• They believe that family dynamics or socio-cultural forces are the root cause of mental disorders, and that changing family dynamics or socio-cultural forces will cure or prevent mental disorders.

My clinical work is grounded in the knowledge that all mental illnesses are brain disorders. I believe my patients benefit from knowing that they have a neurobiologically-based, genetically inherited illness which they did not choose and their family did not cause. In order to get well, they must have a profound appreciation of their unique vulnerabilities and how to make healthful choices in order to keep themselves well. It is important for me, as a psychologist, to understand how the brain works – the mind-body-behavior connection – and it is important for me to educate my patients and their families about these issues as well.

It’s a two-way street – brain function affects thoughts, emotions, and behavior; in turn, psychological and behavioral interventions change brain function. The fact that mental illnesses are brain-based does not necessarily mean that medication is required. Research has shown that, for many brain disorders, certain types of psychotherapy are more effective than medication (e.g., mild or moderate depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, anorexia nervosa). For other brain disorders, a combination of psychotherapy and medication produces better outcomes than either treatment alone (e.g., severe major depression, OCD). Less than half of my current patients are taking any psychotropic medication. Many of my patients recover fully without medication, and those who do need medication can often take fewer medications and/or lower doses once they have had good psychological intervention.

One of my college-aged patients who suffers from severe depression and anxiety recently shared the following insight, which beautifully captures the clinical utility of the “brain disorder” concept:

“With my last therapist, we just talked about what went wrong in my family that made me so screwed up. We spent the whole summer trying to figure out why I’m depressed, and it didn’t make me any better. My relationship with my parents just got worse – I got angrier at them and they felt guilty. Now I know I have a brain disorder and I know how to treat it. I come to therapy, I take my meds, and I’m OK. It works.”

We’ll Always Have Fiji

I do not believe that the media plays a major role in the etiology of eating disorders. And yet, in much of the eating disorder world, it has become accepted as an unspoken, self-evident truth that patients with anorexia and bulimia have developed their illnesses in large part due to their desire to emulate “the thin ideal” which our media promotes. Those who espouse this idea cite the Fiji Study, which demonstrated dramatically increased rates of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating amongst Fijian adolescent girls within the first few years after television was first introduced to the island.

I, along with several of my like-minded colleagues, have raised concern over NEDA’s choice of Naomi Wolfe as the conference’s keynote speaker. As a feminist, I am a huge fan of Wolfe’s work. In her groundbreaking book The Beauty Myth, she presents convincing arguments about the myriad ways in which our culture and society are toxic to women. I couldn’t agree more.

Our culture and society are harmful to all women and men, and certainly the media plays a huge role in triggering body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. (Incidentally, the media is a major culprit in the perpetuation of myths about eating disorders.) But disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder. The Fiji study measured body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, not eating disorders.

The disordered eating / eating disorder distinction is not just a matter of semantics. In fact, I believe that eating disorders are quantitatively AND qualitatively distinct from disordered eating, much as major depression is both quantitatively AND qualitatively different from sadness. Anorexia nervosa has existed for centuries, long before the advent of television and internet and fashion magazines, and long before disordered eating became the norm.

I think it would benefit our profession tremendously to arrive at a consensus regarding the definition of “disordered eating” and how it differs from eating disorders.

The confusion between eating disorders vs. disordered eating is a major contributor to society’s (and some professionals’) lack of understanding of eating disorders. People who engage in disordered eating are, on some level, responding to their environment in choosing to engage in certain eating behaviors, whereas people with eating disorders are caught in the grips of a terrifying mental illness which will not allow them to do otherwise.

Disordered eating is very widespread in our country, especially among women. I define disordered eating as a persistent pattern of unhealthy or overly rigid eating behavior – chronic dieting, yo-yo dieting, binge-restrict cycles, eliminating essential nutrients such as fat or carbohydrates, obsession with organic or “healthy” eating – coupled with a preoccupation with food, weight, or body shape.

By this definition, I think well over half of the women in America (and many men as well) are disordered eaters.

The way I see it, disordered eating “comes from the outside” whereas eating disorders “come from the inside.” What I mean is this: environment plays a huge role in the onset of disordered eating, such that the majority of people who live in our disordered culture (where thinness is overvalued, dieting is the norm, portion sizes are huge, etc) will develop some degree of disordered eating, regardless of their underlying biology or psychopathology.

In contrast, the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders. Environment clearly plays a role in the development of eating disorders, but environment alone is not sufficient to cause them. The majority of American women will develop disordered eating at some point, but less than 1% will fall into anorexia nervosa and 3% into bulimia nervosa.

The Fiji study was indeed groundbreaking. It demonstrated the enormous impact of the media on teenage girls’ feelings about their bodies and attitudes towards food. But the study did not demonstrate a causal link between the media and eating disorders. Furthermore, our knowledge that the media makes girls dislike their bodies, while important in its own right, has not yielded useful information with regards to developing effective treatments for eating disorders. And isn’t that the whole point?

I would like for our field to accept the Fiji study for what it is – a fascinating sociological study which confirmed empirically what we already knew intuitively – and push forward towards a deeper understanding of eating disorders so that we may develop and implement more effective treatments.

About the Food

“It’s not about the food.”

This phrase, used widely in eating disorder recovery, is misleading and potentially harmful.

Here’s the truth – anorexia nervosa (AN) is not “about” anything other than being born with a certain neurobiological predisposition to this particular brain disorder, which lays dormant until activated by insufficient nutrition. Given that food restriction has a calming and mood-elevating effect in people with this type of brain chemistry, anorexics may restrict their food intake (either consciously or unconsciously) as a way of coping with uncomfortable feelings or stressful events.

So it isn’t JUST about the food; it’s about feelings and circumstances as well. People with AN must learn healthy ways to regulate their emotions. Most of them will require psychotherapy to help them tackle anxiety and perfectionism, build healthy relationships, challenge their distorted thoughts and beliefs, or treat coexisting conditions such as depression or OCD. But it is the disturbance in eating behavior and weight, rather than feelings or events per se, which cause immense physical and psychological damage.

An initial period of low nutrition sets the disorder in motion. Continued low nutrition and low body weight perpetuate the symptoms. Sustained full nutrition and weight restoration are essential for mental and physical recovery. Continued good nutrition and maintenance of a healthy body weight for life protect patients against relapse. At every step of the process, nutrition (or lack thereof) plays a functional role.

The relationship between food and AN is analogous to the relationship between alcohol and alcoholism. To state that AN “isn’t about the food” is like stating that alcoholism “isn’t about drinking.” A person may be born with a predisposition to developing alcoholism due to her genetic makeup and her particular brain chemistry. However, if that person never takes a sip of alcohol, the disease will never be activated in the first place. Similarly, a person predisposed to AN will not develop the disorder in the absence of a nutritional deficit.

I like to think about the development of eating disorders in terms of the “four P’s:”

Predisposing factors
Recent research indicates that 50-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic. Individuals with AN have a certain genetically-transmitted neurobiological predisposition. Personality traits which make an individual more susceptible to developing AN include anxiety, perfectionism, obsessiveness, behavioral inhibition, and cognitive rigidity. Most patients with AN have exhibited one or more of these traits since early childhood, long before the development of an eating disorder. These traits tend to be exacerbated during bouts of malnutrition and persist long after recovery, albeit to a lesser degree.

Precipitating factors
Anorexia nervosa is always precipitated by a period of low nutrition. The precursor to the low nutrition will vary from person to person. In modern American culture, where most girls and young women experience a drive for thinness, dieting is the most common pathway to AN.

Not every episode of AN is triggered by dieting, however. A simple desire to “eat healthy,” participation in sports without appropriate caloric compensation, a bout with the stomach flu, or simply loss of appetite during a period of stress – any one of these unintentional, seemingly benign periods of low nutrition can trigger AN in a vulnerable child.

Weight and shape concerns are culturally mediated phenomenon and are not necessarily part of the symptom picture for all anorexics. In medieval times, fasting for religious purposes triggered what we now call anorexia nervosa. AN is seen in cultures as diverse as China, where sufferers report loss of appetite or physical complaints, and Ghana, where sufferers view their self-starvation in terms of religion and self-control.

Puberty, which involves dramatic hormonal, neurological, and physical changes coupled with new social and academic demands, is often a precipitating factor for AN. Neurobiological researchers have hypothesized that puberty-related hormonal changes may exacerbate serotonin dysregulation, explaining why AN usually begins in adolescence.

Perpetuating factors
Continued malnutrition is largely responsible for the self-perpetuating cycle of eating disorder symptoms. A starved brain is a sick brain, and people who are undernourished for any reason display many of the symptoms commonly associated with AN: preoccupation with food, unusual food rituals, social withdrawal, irritability, and depression.

In addition to these symptoms of starvation, body dysmorphia, drive for thinness, and fear of weight gain serve as perpetuating factors. Individuals with AN are unable to recognize how thin they are and may perceive themselves as normal or fat, despite emaciation. They are terrified of eating and morbidly afraid of gaining weight. They cope with these fears by continuing to restrict their diet and remaining underweight, which of course perpetuates the symptoms of starvation. It is a vicious cycle.

Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, ADHD, and bipolar disorder may also serve as perpetuating factors. Food restriction and compulsive exercise act as a “drug” for certain individuals, providing them with temporary relief from anxiety and negative moods. An anorexic who is suffering from other psychological problems may use her eating disorder symptoms in attempt to alleviate her intolerable emotions. This makes re-feeding and recovery excruciatingly difficult, as the anorexic is required to face extremely painful thoughts and feelings as she endures the two things she fears most: eating more and gaining weight.

Prognostic factors
Research indicates that full nutrition and prompt weight restoration as soon as possible after AN diagnosis is a predictor of good outcome. Likewise, prolonged periods of time spent at a sub-optimal weight are associated with a protracted course of illness and increased risk of irreparable damage such as infertility, osteoporosis, and suicide.

A recent study of inpatients with AN found that the best predictors of weight maintenance during the first year post-discharge were the level of weight restoration at the conclusion of acute treatment and the avoidance of weight loss immediately following intensive treatment. Another study found that nutrient density and variety (eating a wide range of foods, including those that are high-calorie and high-fat) were significant predictors of positive long-term outcome in weight-restored anorexics.

All of the available data suggest that eating a complete, well-balanced diet and maintaining ideal body weight are of utmost importance in recovery from AN and in preventing relapse. Full nutrition and weight restoration alone will not cure AN, but full recovery cannot occur without these essential components.

In sum, nutrition plays a functional role in all stages of AN, from the initial onset and maintenance of symptoms to physical and mental recovery to relapse prevention.

Maybe it is about the food after all.

A Dangerous Precedent

Earlier this week, a federal judge ordered the Pittsburgh Public Schools to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a mother, who claimed her adolescent daughter was bullied into anorexia.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff’s daughter, now 15, was bullied relentlessly at school in 6th and 7th grades. A group of boys taunted her and made degrading remarks of a sexual nature, insinuating that she was fat and ugly. The girl stopped eating lunch at school in attempt to avoid being teased by these boys, who ridiculed her for eating and being fat. Although the girl’s teacher, principal, and guidance counselor were aware of the bullying, they did nothing to intervene. The girl began losing weight, and by the middle of her 7th grade year, her weight was dangerously low and she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, for which she was treated at an inpatient psychiatric clinic. The plaintiff, whose daughter now attends private school, sued the school district, her daughter’s middle school, and her principal, claiming that her daughter developed anorexia as a result of their inaction.

I disagree with this ruling, and I think it sets a dangerous precedent.

Before I state my points of contention, I will make several points very clear:
• Bullying has the potential to cause extreme distress. It is cruel, harmful, and absolutely inexcusable.
• All schools should have clear, written policies about bullying and sexual harassment. All students, parents, and faculty must be aware of these policies. School faculty and administrators must enforce these policies to the best of their abilities.
• School faculty and administrators have a responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students, and have a duty to intervene at the first sign of bullying.
• Students who engage in bullying behavior should be punished appropriately. If the bullying continues, they should be expelled.

In this particular case, the bullies did some terrible things; they must be held responsible for their actions and punished appropriately. The school faculty and administration were certainly negligent; they must be held accountable for their inaction and punished appropriately. The school district was remiss not to have a bullying policy, and they should be compelled to create one. The victim suffered horribly as a result, and she deserves to heal from this trauma and to attend school in a safe environment. And the buck stops here. I do not believe that the bullies or the negligent school personnel are responsible for this child’s mental illness.

To create a legal precedent in which school officials are held legally or financially liable for a child’s mental illness is dangerous on several levels:
• It implies that the actions of children can cause another child to develop a mental illness.
• It implies that the actions or inactions of adults can cause a child to develop a mental illness.
• It implies that anorexia nervosa is (or can be) the result of teasing or bullying.
• It reinforces the popular but antiquated and unsupported notion that anorexia nervosa is the result of some deep-seated trauma.
• It implies that this child would not have developed anorexia nervosa if she had not been bullied.
• It neglects the horrific experiences of tens of thousands of other children who have been bullied and have suffered silently, but have not developed anorexia nervosa.
• It invalidates the experiences of the tens of thousands of children and adults who have never been bullied or traumatized in any way, but nonetheless have developed anorexia nervosa.

Imagine being a prepubescent boy and being held responsible for causing a classmate’s severe mental illness. Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way defending the behavior of these bullies. They did cruel things and they must be punished. But they did not make this girl develop a life-threatening brain disorder. They couldn’t have, even if they wanted to! Similarly, the school faculty and administrators were obviously negligent and made some terrible mistakes, but they did not cause this child to develop a mental illness.

The most recent scientific evidence strongly suggests that anorexia nervosa is a biologically-based, genetically transmitted brain disorder which is triggered by malnutrition and then becomes self-perpetuating. Children with anorexia come from all walks of life. Some are popular, confident, social, happy, and well-adjusted before their illness begins. Others are depressed, anxious, introverted, teased, or unstable before they develop anorexia. Some children develop anorexia after a stressful event, which could be as benign as a starting middle school or as serious as rape. For many children, the onset of anorexia nervosa does not coincide with a major stressor, but rather spirals out of control during an attempt to “eat healthy,” get in shape for sports, or lose a few pounds for prom.

My point is that some children are simply “wired” for anorexia nervosa, which can be triggered by relatively minor stressors or relatively benign bouts of under-nutrition. It doesn’t make sense to “sue the trigger” when it is just that – a trigger. If we can sue a school district – and win tens of thousands of dollars – for allowing a child to be bullied into anorexia, where does it end? If a child develops an eating disorder after reading a book on nutrition, do we sue the publisher? If an 18-year-old becomes anorexic while struggling to adapt to the social and academic challenges of college life, do we sue the university?

If a teenager develops and eating disorder after being raped, the rapist should be tried and convicted and incarcerated. But the eating disorder, in my opinion, is irrelevant to the outcome of the trial. The rapist should be incarcerated for the same length of time (for life, in my opinion) regardless of whether the victim develops any mental illness afterwards, because he committed a violent crime. The crime is no more or less heinous based upon the particular pre-existing neurological makeup of his victim.

It is well-known amongst mental health professionals that a psychotic break can be triggered by “high expressed emotion,” such as bullying or family conflict, in a person who has the underlying neurobiological predisposition. Do we then sue the school for allowing a child to be “bullied into schizophrenia?” Do we sue the parents for arguing too much and thus causing their son’s psychosis?

I have the deepest sympathy for this plaintiff, and especially for her daughter. No doubt, they have both suffered horribly. This mother is only doing what she believes is best for her dear child, and I’m sure she believes she is helping other children in the process. The judge who approved of this settlement is, likewise, only trying to ensure that justice is served. He or she probably has no intimate knowledge of the etiology of anorexia nervosa, and probably has no idea what some of the negative ramifications of his ruling could be.

If the lawsuit had been simply about protecting children from bullying, I would have supported it 100%. I cannot, however, support a lawsuit which enshrines bullying as a legally valid cause of anorexia.

A False Dichotomy

One of the things that bothers me most about my field is the false dichotomy between biology and psychology. On the one hand, there are psychiatrists who over-diagnose and overmedicate without taking the time to get to know patients and truly understand their symptoms. They spend very little time with patients and try to solve everything with a pill, rather than providing psychotherapy or referring patients to a psychotherapist. These psychiatrists do not take into account the role of environmental stressors, lifestyle (nutrition, sleep, substance use), and learned patterns of thinking that can be successfully treated without medication.

On the other hand, there are therapists who over-pathologize and overanalyze. These therapists are married to unscientific, unsupported psychodynamic theories about the etiology of psychological problems which tend to attribute symptoms to supposed family dysfunction and internal conflicts. These therapists fail to take into account the powerful role of genetics and neurobiology in contributing to the patient’s symptoms. They ignore or discount the recent scientific advances in our field, and they do not employ empirically-supported treatments which have been demonstrated to be effective. They rely instead on their opinions and “clinical judgment.”

Neither side of this dichotomy serves its patients well, as both sides fail to appreciate the true complexity of the human experience. One side places all eggs in one very small proverbial basket (a pill), effectively abnegating the patient of any responsibility for behavioral, psychological, or environmental change. The other side places an unfair amount of blame on the patient and / or her family, searching for root causes that may not exist, traumas that may never have occurred, or dysfunction in normal thoughts and behaviors. Consequently, it is implied, if not blatantly asserted, that biologically-driven thoughts and behaviors are freely chosen and can be un-chosen just as freely with enough insight into said root causes, traumas, and dysfunction.

I am often disappointed by those mental health professionals who have so little scientific understanding of the interaction between genes and environment, between biology and psychology, between experience and neurodevelopment. They seem to forget that the mind is an abstraction of the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Their thinking is so dichotomous – disorder X was caused by either genes OR environment; treatment must be medication OR psychotherapy; it’s a neurobiological illness OR it is caused by environmental factors. They don’t seem to understand that, with mental illness, it’s rarely a question of “nature or nurture.” Rather, it is nature AND nurture, both of which come in many forms. Biology, psychology, and environment are constantly interacting, with each of these components profoundly impacting the other two.

I would like to see all mental health professionals develop a full understanding of and appreciation for biopsychosocial models of mental illness and evidence-based treatments. It is my hope that psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals from all disciplines will begin taking a more well-rounded approach to treating psychiatric disorders and helping people achieve mental health.

Palliative Care for Anorexia Nervosa – Part 2

Last fall, I blogged about palliative care for anorexia nervosa (AN). In light of a recently published article on the topic, and considering how riled up I have become as a result, I believe this subject deserves another post.

An article by Lopez, Yager, and Feinstein entitled Medical Futility and Psychiatry: Palliative Care and Hospice Care as a Last Resort in the Treatment of Refractory Anorexia Nervosa was published in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The authors describe a 30-year-old female with an 11-year history of AN who presented in their clinic at an extremely low weight with numerous medical complications. Over the course of her chronic illness, this woman had been through two stints in residential treatment, multiple hospitalizations, and several years of participation in a day treatment program. At the time of intake, she continued to engage in caloric restriction (consuming fewer than 300 calories per day) and exercise compulsions (running 2 hours daily).

The treatment team recommended residential treatment, but the patient was unwilling to go voluntarily and the treatment centers were unwilling to accept her involuntarily. The team concluded that “no viable treatment options existed” and consulted the medical center’s ethics committee.
The patient’s family refused guardianship. When the idea of pursuing court-ordered guardianship was presented, the hospital attorneys rejected it on the grounds that the patient would most likely not meet criteria. In the end, “the treatment team and ethics committee determined that her physical and psychiatric impairments were likely to lead to her death, despite any plausible attempts at aggressive intervention” (p. 373).

A palliative care approach was pursued for this patient, despite her firm belief that she was not going to die. So she continued her extreme caloric restriction, purging, laxative abuse, and compulsive exercise. She sustained numerous stress fractures, abrasions, and bruises from falls while running. Her weight, blood pressure, and heart rate dropped even lower. During this time, she attended regular outpatient therapy sessions, during which her eating disorder was never discussed. She eventually became so weak that she was moved to an inpatient hospice, where she died three weeks later.

What is wrong with this picture? The premature death of a young person is always a heartbreaking tragedy. But when a young person dies from a treatable illness, it is even worse. This patient’s family and treatment team abandoned her in her most desperate time of need. The ethics board washed their hands of her; law did not protect her.

Imagine, now, that this patient suffered from severe mental retardation (MR) instead of AN. A patient with MR would not be permitted to engage in self-injurious behaviors. If she could not eat on her own, her family or her nurse or her homecare worker would prepare her meals and spoon feed her. If she engaged in repetitive physical activities that posed a danger to her health, as many intellectually challenged persons do, she would be restrained for her own safety. If her family were unable or unwilling to provide her with the care she needed, she would be placed in a residential treatment center or a group home or an assisted living facility of some type. The cost of these services, even in the United States, would be subsidized by the government. Allowing a person with MR to starve to death would be considered cruel and inhumane. But for a person with AN, it is OK?

The irony here is overwhelming. Both AN and MR are biologically-based brain disorders which result in an inability to meet one’s basic physical needs. MR is, by definition, a life-long, incurable condition which causes marked impairment in functioning. AN is treatable, and many people recover from it completely. Unlike most people with MR, people with AN are able to form intimate relationships, pursue higher education, have meaningful careers, function independently, and make enormous contributions to society.

We, as a society, have done a great service to those with MR. We have medical ethics, legal guidelines, and government programs to protect them and ensure that their needs are met. They are not offered palliative care. Regardless of their family circumstances and finances, they are offered tremendous support for as long as they need it, which is usually for their entire lives. But with AN, the treatment ends when the insurance runs out. Or when the parents and treatment team are fed up. Or when a judge decides that further treatment isn’t worth it.

For the record, this is not about people with AN being “more worthwhile” than people with MR and therefore “more deserving” of resources. Quite the contrary. I believe that all human beings, regardless of physical or mental illness, disability, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, deserve affordable, effective healthcare services throughout their lifespan.

Why is it that we have failed people with chronic AN but served people with MR so well? Because most people in society, and many in my own profession, believe that AN is a choice. No one, not even children, believes that people choose to have MR. Because many treatment professionals believe that AN patients must be motivated to recover, enter treatment willingly, and manage their symptoms on their own. No one waits around for people with MR to become motivated to recover before providing them with services, and no one expects them to manage their issues alone. Because our legal system believes that an adult with a BMI of 10 who runs 15 miles a day and cannot nourish herself is competent to make her own healthcare decisions.

Come on, world. We can do so much better than this.

Fighting the Wrong Battles

I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the conflation of “body dissatisfaction” with “eating disorder.” The former is a culturally-driven socio-political phenomenon, whereas the latter is a severe, biologically-based mental illness. The former afflicts over 85% of American females, whereas the latter strikes only a small fraction of us (less than 1% for anorexia nervosa and 2-3% for bulimia nervosa).

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding supermodel Kate Moss’s comment that “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” and around Ralph Lauren’s ridiculously photo-shopped ads. Eating disorder clinicians and activists have been quite vocal about their opposition to these media bytes, arguing that they encourage eating disorders. I know that these professionals and activists have noble intentions, but I believe they are fighting the wrong battles.

I object to underweight models not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because being underweight is harmful to the models’ physical and mental health, and viewing these images on a regular basis contributes to body dissatisfaction in most people. I refuse to have magazines in my office waiting room not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because I am opposed to the blatant objectification of women. Besides, I think that fashion magazines are sexist, superficial, and boring.

Hanging in my office is a certificate of membership from NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) which thanks me for my “support in the effort to eliminate eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.” I really wish they had eliminated those last three words.

I think the conflation of sadness with depression is analogous. The former, in its extreme and persistent form, is one symptom of the latter. The former is a natural, healthy emotional state that every human being experiences from time to time, while the latter is a serious mental illness caused by a combination of neurobiological, psychological, and environmental factors. I remember an incident that illustrates this principle beautifully. I was conducting an initial evaluation with an adolescent girl and her parents. When I asked the father whether he thought his daughter was depressed, he replied: “I don’t believe in depression.” Interesting response, I thought. As if depression were something like God or heaven or Santa Clause, something to be believed in or not. I asked the father to elaborate on his beliefs. He replied: “I think we all get sad sometimes, and that’s OK.” I smiled and gently responded that I agree with him – yes, all of us do get sad sometimes, and yes, that’s OK. However, some people experience prolonged, intense feelings of sadness accompanied by sleep and appetite disturbances, fatigue, thoughts of suicide, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These people are experiencing major depression.”

Imagine if, in exchange for my membership in the National Depression Association, I received a certificate thanking me for my support in the effort to eliminate Major Depressive Disorder and sadness.” Laughable, isn’t it? Well, so is the ED/Body Dissatisfaction comparison. It trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience, and it falsely encourages those whose lives have not been touched by eating disorders to think that they “know how it feels.” Well, guess what. They don’t.

Eliminating all sadness in the world would probably not affect the prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder because sadness is but one symptom of depression, whereas depression is not a result of sadness. Likewise, eliminating body dissatisfaction would be fantastic for everyone, but it would not result in the elimination of eating disorders.

Contrary to popular belief (and, sadly enough, the belief of many eating disorders professionals), the media’s glorification of thinness is not responsible for the so-called “epidemic” of anorexia nervosa. Also contrary to popular belief, the incidence of anorexia nervosa has not increased dramatically in recent decades. Cases of what would now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa have been documented as early as the medieval times, long before thinness was considered fashionable. These fasting saints shunned all sustenance to the point of emaciation not because they wanted to be skinny, but because they believed it brought them closer to God.

Unbeknownst to many, anorexia nervosa occurs in many non-western cultures. For example, recent studies have shown that the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in China and Ghana is equal to its prevalence in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be thinner. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, all experience prolonged inability to nourish themselves, dramatic weight loss to the point of emaciation, amenorrhea, and denial of the seriousness of their condition. The self-reported reasons for starvation, it seems, are the only things that change across time and culture. I believe that an anorexic’s so-called reasons for starvation are simply her attempts to derive meaning from her symptoms, which are always filtered through a cultural lens. An anorexic does not starve herself because she wants to be thin, or because she wants to be holy, or because she wants to show supreme self-control. She starves herself because she suffers from a brain disease, of which self-starvation is a symptom.

Recent research suggests that anorexia nervosa is not a culture-bound syndrome, but bulimia nervosa is. Anorexia nervosa seems to be a distinct genotype that has been around for centuries and that manifests itself in various cultures and eras. Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, appears to occur in individuals with a certain genetic / neurobiological predisposition who are exposed to a culture which combines massive amounts of readily available, highly palatable foods with a cultural mandate for thinness. This research implies that reducing or eliminating the cultural glorification of thinness may indeed reduce the prevalence of bulimia nervosa, but will have no effect on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa. I suppose that, once this awful waif model craze blows over, anorexics will simply find another “reason” to starve.