Mental Health Bites

Cause and blame in Eating Disorder Development

I’m back today (having briefly surfaced from dissertation research) to talk about the issue of blame in relation to Eating Disorder development.  I’m not sure if I am simply noticing this more, or if it is a present phenomenon, but there currently seems to be lots of conversation, articles, and research about the cause/s of Eating Disorders.

For example there has been an NSPCC story about one person’s awful experience of sexual abuse and how that caused their Eating Disorder, another piece titled ‘How My Dad’s Toxic Masculinity Gave Me an Eating Disorder’, reports of how social media is making Eating Disorders worse and research hypothesising that Eating Disorders could be a consequence of auto-immune disease.  And that’s just within the last week!

Don’t get me wrong I’m really glad that people are sharing their experiences, and that research in the field in constantly gaining momentum…. But, how helpful it is to talk about causes of development in isolation of each other?  Is the ‘average person’ cognisant of how many factors overlap to develop an illness (and that, therefore, arguably we can’t discern actual cause) – or instead do they see a heart wrenching story and assume that it (as a stereotype) applies to many, or all who have the illness?

Causes do NOT happen in isolation, EVER.  Sure, there might be a significant trigger – but in reality, lots of risk factors are present in the individual lives of each person who develops an Eating Disorder.  Sometimes these factors are very overt (such as abuse) and sometimes they are very subtle (such as pre-morbid stomach problems), but never is it a singular factor.


I see this phenomenon present in the therapy room often.  Clients naturally want to make sense of their experience; for there to be an identifiable cause and effect to allowing for ‘fixing’ of their problem.  Instead, however, we unravel complex life experiences and patterns of behaviours which, by the end of therapy, could never be packaged as simple ‘cause and effect’.

The imposed belief that there ‘should’ be a direct and specific cause can even be detrimental to individuals, with some people feeling that their experience is not valid because they can’t pin-point a specific cause.  This type of pressure can prevent people from accessing support, and result in them suffering in silence unnecessarily.

Equally many factors that can contribute to the development of an Eating Disorder are also present in the lives of those that don’t develop Eating Disorders.  So, again this adds another level of complexity.

With regards to research, the reality is that acknowledging that a specific factor MIGHT contribute to the development of an Eating Disorder (or any other illness) doesn’t exactly enable us to do anything about it.  We might be able, for example, to identify that a certain gene puts people at risk of developing an Eating Disorder…. But, then what will we do with that knowledge?  Test foetuses for said gene?  Create a gene therapy for in utero treatment because this baby-to-be MIGHT be at risk of POTENTIALLY developing an Eating Disorder?

If such a treatment existed, would it even work, considering that an Eating Disorder is a coping mechanism?  Or would that person just go on to utilise a different unhealthy coping tool such as drinking too much alcohol, or using illegal substances?

It is just way too complex an issue.

So, I wonder how we start to talk about risk factors in a helpful way?

I have so many thoughts and questions on this topic…. But essentially, I just don’t think it’s helpful for society to ascribe blame.  Cause and effect is as individual as the person – and therefore could be an endless conversation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!?

One thought on “Cause and blame in Eating Disorder Development

  1. Stella Neophytou

    Hi Kel

    I for one would like to see more reseach into how we create individual spaces where people feel empowered to reflect on their specific issues and develop their own safer coping mechanisms.

    Working with people to support their discovery of their individual way through life’s ups and down’s is the way forward. Trying to make everything fit into neat boxes is counter productive to the work we do.



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