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Dr. Susan Albers

Dr. Susan Albers

Posted: November 4, 2010 04:46 PM

Eating Disorder Reality TV?

What's Your Reaction:

What's Eating You is a new T.V. show on E! about eating disorder treatment. The show followed two young women struggling with eating disorders -- one with anorexia and the other bulimia. Both women briefly shared their stories and the viewers got a very tiny glimpse into their treatment. If you saw the commercials, you may not have known what to expect. Reality T.V.? Weird eating problems? Media blame for eating disorders?

While this was a documentary, there is a new genre of quasi-reality shows/documentaries about mental health problems, Hoarders being one of the most popular and well-known. The concern amongst mental health professionals is that individuals with mental health problems could become exploited, and that the problems are shown from the angle of entertainment rather communicating the seriousness of the issue.

On the other hand, some argue that shows like Hoarders provide education and awareness. Some people have been motivated to obtain help after seeing these programs. They realize that they aren't alone and that OCD is a "real" issue. Seeing what treatment is like on TV may also make it less frightening. It's a very heated debate amongst mental health professionals.

Here are a few things viewers may have gathered about ED treatment from What's Eating You:

1) Eating disorders aren't about vanity. Both woman experienced a variety of triggers in their lives -- pressure to be thin due to dance, self-esteem issues, stress, a sick sibling, peer teasing, a mother who also experienced an eating disorder herself etc. There were multiple triggers that impacted the development and maintenance of the ED. Things got better and worse -- often correlating with what was happening in their lives. Unfortunately, we can get lulled into believing that eating disorders are just people who are worried about how they look. As a therapist on the show said, the ED is the "symptom not the problem."

2) At the beginning of treatment, many people are ambivalent or skeptical about getting treatment. It's scarier than you would think to let go of it. The eating disorder has become a coping mechanism. Thus, learning healthier coping skills is key in treatment. The woman struggling with anorexia was on the fence about whether she truly had a problem. This is hard to understand for people who don't have an eating disorder. Low weight can truly skew your cognition, particularly how you see yourself.

3) Simply knowing the medical risks isn't enough to change the behavior. Both women were at risk of dying and/or experiencing some very serious medical problems. They were fully aware of this. This isn't enough to make a person stop. Although a weak comparison, think about smoking. It's dangerous and can kill you. But, it's often not what makes people stop the behavior. To help people recover from eating disorders they really need ongoing, consistent treatment from a team of professionals. "Just eating" doesn't solve the problem.

3) Eating disorders are not "caused" by families. The messages caregivers send their kids about food and self-esteem is important. However, biology and genetics are also significant risk factors. Consider that many people go on a diet and only some spiral into an eating disorder. The reason is often related to genetics (still a complicated field being researched). The good news is that families can positively impact treatment. Families can help and be a wonderful support in many cases.

Treatment for eating disorders takes time. It is hard to see the full extent of it in one whirlwind hour (well, really a half hour for each woman on the show). The show did hint at how difficult treatment can be. If you are thinking about treatment, please continue to keep it in mind and do your research. There are many benefits: See: www.gurze.net, www.edreferral.com, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, and www.aedweb.org.

If you watched the show, you may be wondering, so then what? Neither girl appeared "better" (symptom-free) at the end of the show (although there are many ways in which they had seemed to improve). It's not what we typically expect or want to see on T.V. We are used to happy endings and things all wrapped up at the end of the hour.

The good news -- with time and the right treatment, people can get better. There is hope. I'd like to revisit these women at a later date to see how they are doing. We wish them our best and that they don't give up. Thank you for sharing your story with us and bravely allowing us to join you in some of your treatment and journey toward health.

Next week, the show will introduced two more individuals with different types of eating problems. I'll be back to review What's Eating You again.

Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness. She is the author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful, and Mindful Eating 101 and is a Huffington Post blogger. Her books have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, O, the Oprah Magazine, Natural Health, Self Magazine and on the Dr. Oz T.V. show. Visit Albers online at www.eatingmindfully.com