Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Disclosing an Eating Disorder: A Situational Analysis of Online Accounts

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Disclosing an Eating Disorder: A Situational Analysis of Online Accounts

Article excerpt

Eating disorders are complex, multidimensional disturbances in eating and eating-related behaviours that interfere with functioning and health (von Ranson & Wallace, 2014). Eating disorders characteristically develop during adolescence and disproportionally affect females living in Western countries (von Ranson & Wallace, 2014). These disorders are commonly misunderstood by lay people (Ebneter & Latner, 2013; Roehrig & McLean, 2010), and have attracted substantial attention from the media (Saguy & Gruys, 2010), adding to the stigma and misunderstanding of those affected.

Individuals with eating disorders have reported that the general public do not understand eating disorders and often attribute the illnesses to vanity or emulating celebrities (Dimitropoulos, Freeman, Muskat, Domingo, & McCallum, 2016). Due to the stigma of having an eating disorder, individuals often attempt to conceal their eating disorder from those around them (Cachelin, Rebeck, Veisel, & Striegel-Moore, 2001; Hinshaw & Stier, 2008). The fear of judgment and anticipated discrimination contributes to decisions not to disclose an eating disorder and may also delay seeking treatment (El Badri & Mellsop, 2007).

Few studies have focused on the disclosure of eating disorders. The topic of disclosing an eating disorder is critical to study, because the choice to disclose has been considered an important gateway for individuals to access professional help (Gilbert et al., 2012). Researchers suggest that early diagnosis and referral are the best predictors of recovery from an eating disorder (Loeb & Le Grange, 2009), pointing to the importance of better understanding the disclosure process. For many individuals with eating disorders, they cannot begin recovery without inviting someone else into their experience (Rusch, Gabbidon, Thornicroft, & Clement, 2014).

Given that little is known about the process or the experience of disclosing an eating disorder generally and that social media is playing an increasing role in the lives of young people, this study sought to better understand how individuals with eating disorders describe their experiences of disclosing to others. In particular, this study examined the online narratives about disclosure (e.g., reasons for disclosure, responses to disclosure, and thoughts about how the disclosure was received by others) on websites specifically created by and for those with eating disorders. The research question guiding the study was "What are the tensions, differences, and positions in online narratives about eating disorder disclosures?"

Disclosing an eating disorder has been demonstrated to be difficult for the individual disclosing, and literature shows individuals with eating disorders are often hesitant to come forward to others (Becker, Grinspoon, Kilbanski, & Herzog, 1999). Thus, learning more about the disclosure experience is imperative to better serve individuals with eating disorders, by way of evidence-informed resources about disclosure and to better advise mental health professionals responding to and discussing the disclosure experience. Findings from this project are relevant to clinicians working with individuals with eating disorders and shed light on the hesitation to disclose a potentially shameful experience. Further, findings have important implications for the profession of counselling psychology and suggest the need for family-based therapy and offering increased psychological services over the Internet for those with eating disorders.

Entrance into the Research

I (first author) am a white woman, currently undertaking my Doctorate in Philosophy in Counselling Psychology. At the time this research was conducted, I was a Master of Science (MSc) student. I entered into this research largely because of an experience that occurred during my undergraduate degree. I received a phone call and learned that a close family member had been concealing an eating disorder. …

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