Why research eating disorders?

9 November 2015

Eating Disorders affect over 700,000 people in the UK, yet we still know very little about these mental health disorders and how we can better treat them.

When I started out as a student studying psychology I had the whole spectrum of mental health to explore and work in. However, early on I became drawn to the field of eating disorders as a particular interest point. I’ve spent many years working with a range of eating disorder charities providing support to those living with eating disorders, and more recently completed my PhD at Ulster University entitled Understanding Eating Disorder.

Considered one of the most difficult mental health disorders to understand or treat, I’ve been asked many times why I would want to work in such a challenging area of mental health. With more than 720,000 people in the UK currently being treated for an eating disorder and many more undiagnosed and unaccounted for within the statistics, research in this area has never been more needed.

According to the NICE guidelines (published in 2004) there is still limited research to support effective treatments for anorexia nervosa, yet the prevalence of anorexia and other eating disorders is rising. The number of hospital admissions across the UK for teenagers with eating disorders has nearly doubled in the past three years, both in outpatient treatment settings and hospital admissions.

While this creates a bleak picture for eating disorders as an area, it has provided me the challenge to look at new and innovative approaches to understand why these challenges exist and how we can work on improving things.

My research placed a focus on the early stages of eating disorders to better understand why people might develop eating disorders in the first place and why it becomes difficult to seek help. By researching and understanding the early indicators and processes related to eating disorders, it is hoped that fewer people will experience the severe consequences that are associated with anorexia and bulimia.

Focusing on these earlier stages, research can point to indicators such as emotional coping, low self-esteem, identity struggles and difficulty expressing emotions as key factors that are involved in the development of an eating disorder. Moving beyond a focus on weight, this thinking can allow us to better understand anorexia, bulimia and binge eating from a mental health perspective.

Other research projects are taking a new and innovative look at eating disorders, such as Charlottes Helix which is a worldwide project mapping the genetic code for eating disorders so we can "crack the code" and understand what makes some people more predisposed to an eating disorder.

Charity work is also pushing the field of eating disorders into a fresh new place with groups like Men Get Eating Disorders Too breaking the stereotypes and stigma surrounding eating disorders.

So, when asked why I research the difficult topic of eating disorders, my reply is that this is the time to begin a research career in the most challenging area of mental health. The gaps in research provide space to be innovative and fresh with thinking. This is an exciting time to be involved in the area where new ideas of approaching awareness, prevention and intervention are developing.