Language is a funny thing.
I’m a writer–every day, I see (and use!) the power of words to explain very esoteric subjects, to comfort a friend, and even to entertain. The language we use to talk about eating disorders is also important. It was refreshing to have a psychotherapist describe me not as “an anorexic,” but as “someone with anorexia.” Anorexia was a diagnosis. It wasn’t me.
The issue of language in eating disorders goes far deeper than whether or not to use anorexic or bulimic to describe someone. It cuts right to the heart of how we understand eating disorders and how we treat them. One of the sessions at the 2012 International Conference on Eating Disorders in Austin, Texas discussed the use of brain language in regards to eating disorders. Laura Collins, founder and executive director of FEAST, spoke about how the biological language can be empowering to parents and sufferers. Brett Deacon, a psychologist from the University of Wyoming, spoke of the power of the biopsychosocial model of mental illness, and the potential dangers of biological language. Anne Becker, an anthropologist and ED expert from Harvard University, talked about how language affects our perception of EDs. Lastly, Kelly Klump, a behavioral geneticist from Michigan State University, asked the crucial question: is it time for new language or new data?
First, a mini-history lesson. As neuroimaging techniques and other brain science has advanced in recent years, scientists studying mental illness have begun to use these tools to explore the biology of mental illness. Without these tools, researchers could only look at the psychosocial factors that contributed to mental illness, and they accumulated a mass of very important data on the subject. But neuroimaging and other techniques have allowed scientists to probe biological variations that might contribute to mental illness. Leading psychiatrists and psychologists like Tom Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health, have argued that these significant biological differences mean that “mental illness” should be renamed “brain disease.”
To some, a brain disease by any other name surely doesn’t smell as sweet. To me, the use of “brain disease” or, an alternative, “biologically-based mental illness” seems obvious. Depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders affect the brain. That’s where they start. Deny that, and you may as well call them Big Toe Disorders or something equally ludicrous. If they’re not brain disorders, then what are they? I’m not asking a rhetorical question-I really would like an answer.
One potential answer that Dr. Deacon suggested was the biopsychosocial model. Mental illnesses are really biopsychosocial illnesses. Which is accurate. My problem with that term is that every disease, from eating disorders to cancer to diabetes, has biological, psychological, and social components. It’s like taking cows, sheep, goats, horses, dogs, and cats and putting them in a barn and trying to tell them apart by figuring out which have four legs.
I don’t know of anyone out there who can support the assertion that EDs are only biological. Genes matter, yes, but so does environment. Laura presented statements from families around the world that biological language like “brain disorder” gave them a way to move forward. Looking for blame didn’t really matter anymore. They could reframe their loved one’s behavior: instead of being a willful teen refusing to eat, they had a sick adolescent who wasn’t able to eat.
One of the main concerns with the biological language is the potential for stigma. If your genes caused your illness, then you’re screwed. After all, your genes are your genes, and they’re not changing unless you stand in front of some gamma rays. Which I wouldn’t recommend. Basically, then, it’s easy to see how biology would support the view of “Once an anorexic/bulimic, always an anorexic/bulimic.” Recovery was a hopeless endeavor.
While it’s true that you’re stuck with the genes you’re born with, your biology isn’t written in stone. To paraphrase biologist PZ Myers, biology isn’t rigid. It’s a bunch of squishy processes making do. Your genes don’t change, but their expression does. It’s a process known as epigenetics, whereby genes are regularly activated and silenced by various environmental factors. It’s entirely possible that the negative energy balance (that is, burning more calories than you’re consuming) that typically precedes anorexia activates genes that perpetuate the food restriction. It’s also entirely possible that nutritional rehabilitation silences these genes or activates other ones that help the brain and body return to normal.
The problem, then, isn’t with the biological language per se, but rather our culture’s generally abysmal level of scientific literacy. These concepts are difficult for even PhD scientists to understand. But as society’s awareness of the biological contributions to brain diseases/ mental illness grows, perhaps the understanding of the complex biology will improve as well. In fact, a study by Cindy Bulik and colleagues at UNC found that biological language actually decreased the stigma of anorexia, rather than increasing it.
Saying things like “brain disease” also doesn’t mean that the only solution is a pill. Although I do benefit from medication, I’m hardly a shill for Big Pharma. Psychotherapy remains one of the best ways to reliably change the brain long-term. Researchers found significant brain changes when a group of people with spider phobia underwent a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The authors conclude that “These findings suggest that a psychotherapeutic approach, such as CBT, has the potential to modify the dysfunctional neural circuitry associated with anxiety disorders. They further indicate that the changes made at the mind level, within a psychotherapeutic context, are able to functionally “rewire” the brain.”
At some point, however, all of this “language talk” makes me want to throw up my hands in frustration. Aren’t we just wasting loads of time playing at semantics? Call it Rainbows and Kittens for all I care!
Except that language really does matter. A recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people were significantly more likely to believe that someone needed treatment when they were diagnosed with social anxiety disorder versus social phobia. In the state of New Jersey, it was legal for health insurers to deny paying for anorexia treatment because it wasn’t a biologically based mental illness. A recent class action law suit caused this provision to be overturned and anorexia and bulimia treated on par with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Language matters, and it matters a lot.
The talk at ICED didn’t necessarily settle the matter, but then it wasn’t meant to. The most important thing was how it provided a better understanding of what we all mean when we say things like brain disease or biopsychosocial. What I mean when I say brain disease isn’t necessarily what other people mean. I know that talking about the biology of eating disorders doesn’t mean that environment is irrelevant as is psychotherapy. But that’s not necessarily what other people think. Perhaps what the field needs to do is clarify what their terms mean and how they use them in a sentence. Only then can we start to have a meaningful dialogue that will move the field forward.