Stigma Towards Recovered Eating Disorder Professionals

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Heather Hower (edit)

Heather Hower, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW

It is widely recognized that there is stigma towards mental health (vs. physical health) problems. The perception is that many people with psychological disorders somehow “choose” to have them, that it’s their “fault” for being “weak,” that they could just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and “snap out of it” if they wanted to, and that they deserve less empathy overall. 

There is a particular stigma against eating disorders, compared to other disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (viewed as more serious, and biologically based). Eating disorders are considered a “lifestyle choice,” for “vain” people who could decide to “just eat.” Extensive research has shown, however, that psychological disorders (including eating disorders) are based on genetic and environmental influences (as with physical disorders) and should be considered as severe.

There is a similar stigma towards recovered eating disorder professionals. Some are viewed as less qualified compared to others who do not have a personal experience of eating disorders. There is an ongoing question of whether the professional is truly recovered or will relapse. Overall, the potential for being emotionally triggered while working with clients is higher for them. Nevertheless, it is important for professionals recovered from eating disorders to speak out about their symptoms, recovery, and maintenance. In this way, they can make the connection between research, clinical practice, and the real thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that they have experienced. Individuals such as Jenni Schaefer, Jennifer Rollin, Carolyn Costin, and Cheryl Kerrigan have had the courage to disclose their personal eating disorder histories through their books, educational series, advocacy, therapy practices, and media outreach; and in the process have helped so many people.

In contrast to eating disorders, there is an acceptance of recovered substance use disorder professionals. Given their usually extensive experience with abusing (sometimes multiple) substances, there is a level of understanding, and credibility, that they bring to the role which others widely respect. In fact, in many cases, if a professional in the substance use disorder area does not have personal experience, they can be “easily duped” by savvy users, who may be able to convince them that they aren’t using.

We have also seen in other disorders that disclosures by recovered professionals can be very helpful to decrease stigma. This is particularly powerful when the professional has been involved with research and/or clinical work that is based on their personal experience, and have cultivated a career despite (or rather, because of) their disorder. A recent example is Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., who disclosed that she created Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT) in response to her own borderline personality disorder (BPD), which had previously not been properly treated.

The field of eating disorders is relatively new, small, and under-funded compared to other disorders. There is a need for continued research, novel interventions, a next generation of professionals, and fresh perspectives on understanding the symptoms, recovery, and maintenance processes. Recovered eating disorder professionals are able to contribute to all of these goals and provide a unique inside look as to what it is like to experience the transition from serious illness to well-being.

Heather Hower, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW has served on the Board of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) since 2013 (including the Development Committee, Research Advisory Council, Conference Committee Co-Chair), and collaborates with her NEDA colleagues on Eating Disorder research studies, papers, and presentations. Through her position at Brown University Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, she has also been collaborating with her local Rhode Island Hospital/Hasbro Children’s Hospital Eating Disorders Partial Hospital, Outpatient, and Home-Based clinical programs since 2013.  Heather had Anorexia Nervosa for 23 years, and has been recovered since 2012.