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Researcher of the Month

Eating Disorder Symptoms and the Need to Increase Mental Health Literacy

In this paper, published in August, PhD student, Nora Trompeter, sought to quantify how teenagers receiving treatment for an eating disorder (the clinical sample) differed in terms of symptoms and psychological distress when compared to teenagers with eating disorder symptoms who were not undergoing treatment (a large community sample).

Most eating disorders begin during adolescence, yet only 10%–25% of teens receive appropriate treatment – a lower percentage than for most other mental health conditions. Identifying distinguishing factors between teens who are in treatment and those who are not could help to inform strategies designed to aid early intervention. 

Summary

Teens from both samples completed questionnaires to assess their weight and shape concerns, disordered eating behaviours and levels of psychological distress. Nora found that teens undergoing treatment were more likely to have a lower BMI, more frequent purging and higher weight/shape concerns. Their disordered eating symptoms tended to be more severe. However, the levels of psychological distress experienced were similar across both groups, regardless of the severity of the eating disorder. Half of the teens in the study reported ‘very high’ levels of psychological distress, compared to only 6% in the general population. Problematic exercise habits (driven exercise) were more common in the group of teens who were not having treatment. 

This paper highlights the fact that teens only seem to be accessing and receiving treatment when their symptoms become more severe. There is a need for greater mental health literacy around eating disorders, in order to increase early detection among teenagers.

Implications

This study has ‘important implications for health promotion and early intervention programmes, those seeking to improve awareness and understanding of the role of driven exercise in eating disorder pathology and of eating disorders among adolescents with higher BMIs in particular’.

Implications for parents – Nora notes that whether or not teens seek treatment often depends on the actions of their parents. Parents should familiarise themselves with the wide range of symptoms associated with eating disorders – not only a low BMI. Notice any shifts in your children’s attitudes to food and exercise, and consider their behavioural motivations. Look out for any rigid patterns or rules around eating. Seek medical advice if you notice anything concerning.

Implications for schools – The promotion of mental health literacy is crucial. Ensure that your setting promotes open conversations about mental health. Focus conversations about the body on function, rather than appearance.

Listen to our podcast interview with Nora Trompeter to learn more.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Nora Trompeter, PhD student at Macquarie University, Australia

Nora Trompeter is a current PhD candidate within the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University. Her research is focused on understanding how eating disorders develop in adolescents. Specifically, she investigates factors that may improve early intervention and prevention methods.