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Growing pain over celebrity treatment show

Posted Dec 01 2011 9:21am
Remember the commercial where a well-known TV doctor said "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV?" This is like that: Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold . Except this is reality TV and real people are being acted upon.

I was one of many in the ED world who were asked to help find "victims" for this show - the producers not getting the irony of that word. As usual, the producers lose interest when I ask them to understand the risks to patients and to families of this kind of exposure especially if done in a sensationalist manner. Everyone I know declined the "casting" call, but supply exceeds prudence.

I am very supportive of families getting out there into the media but carefully, thoughtfully, and NOT while they are still in the thick of it. Media exposure is not for everyone and can do great harm to the patient. I've turned down major TV show exposure for myself and for F.E.A.S.T. because I haven't yet found a responsible journalist at that level who has a clue. The price is too high.**

20/20 wanted to follow a family of a young child currently experiencing Family-Based Maudsley Treatment - risking that child's life "to save others." The Anderson Cooper Show recently tried to arrange a gotcha reunion between a patient and her mother - as a learning tool. Now Lifestyle has offered 90 days of "free" treatment  - and association with a celebrity actor and celebrity psychiatrist - as an entertainment to the public, calling it "access to the best opportunities and/or resources available to them at their disposal." I'm naming names here because parents need to know that prominence in the media doesn't equal prominence in expertise. Not all media is helpful, and in fact the impact of shows like that can be harmful for the "victims," the audience, and families currently trying to understand their care options. (Just watched the Anderson segment about the Starving Secrets show and my mouth is still agape - so glad I didn't do that show. Except for the message to get help, the show perpetuated the usual idea that this is girls who are under pressure to lose weight who just go too far. Treatment was painted as something you had to want enough, and that what you were giving up was thinness - and that it never really goes away. Seek evidence-based treatment? No. That boys get eating disorders? No. That anorexia is not the only eating disorder? No. That biological predisposition is key? NO. There was one really good aspect, however: it did advise parents to take action, "take control" and seek care. Thank you for that. Truly.)

Parents need to know that the promise of "free" treatment on shows like Dr. Phil is a lie. It is not free it is buying the story of financially compromised families. These are "free" marketing for publicity-seeking for-profit clinics - not a sign of good care. There is a coercion effect of being filmed, and being indebted to people. The day of filming is the last day of any help; the producers get their product and that's the end of it. The promise of "helping others" is also suspect. The producers are not trying to help others, they are trying to keep ratings up and keep their jobs. If people are helped, I'm sure they don't mind, but if not - that is not their responsibility. Don't expect a Christmas card, unless it is a solicitation for more exploitation. (I've talked with families victimized and then dropped - in worse shape than before.)

I want media attention to eating disorders. I know it matters: I get a call or email every time a friend or family member sees a spot on TV or an article. They are happy to see the topic brought up, as am I, but don't understand my dismay when the information and messages are so off base.  The rub is that if you are responsible, you don't get airplay. That leaves the screen to those who are desperate, extreme, and not getting good clinical advice. (Very few reputable treatment providers would advise a family to do this kind of media.)

Remember Laetrile? No reasonable journalist in 2011 would do a piece on that once-touted miracle drug for cancer. They would be roundly lambasted and would struggle to find ANY oncologists to support them. But with eating disorders anyone can be an expert and all forms of psychotherapeutic Laetrile are still available. There are no certifications, no boards, no specialty field at all. Anyone can call themselves an ED expert and there is no way to tell the difference.

I, for example, am not an eating disorders expert. I know a bucketload about eating disorders, but I am not an expert and should not be treated as one.

Lifestyle TV calls Gold "one of the world’s most recognized advocates and role models for educating people on the emotional and physical dangers of eating disorders." That's nonsense. Tracey Gold, who I've never met and aside from her book (which I found unhelpful) I've not yet encountered her in any ED activism or work over the past nine years, says she will work with women in the grips of anorexia or bulimia as she uses her own experience to reach them in ways no one else can." Oh, dear. If she's not using the current science and working with current science-based experts, she could do active, unknowing harm. If the content is what I've seen in interviews so far and the promo material, and my exchange with the producers, I'm worried. Her insights into her illness may or may not be good - I don't know - but I also have no reason to trust they are important just because I watched her as a kid on TV.

I'll watch her this time, too - as will countless others who care about this issue - with hope against experience that it won't be the usual, and with me are a small army of protesting parents if it is not. Celebrity is a double-edged sword, and this is too important an issue to simply act the part of an expert when lives are at stake.

**I'm still looking! Call me?
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