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Secret terror of parent activists

Posted Aug 14 2012 9:01am
The "Secret Terror of Anorexia parents" article just out in the Australian Sunday Telegraph is a sad and, well, terrifying example of good thinking run amok and causing real and preventable harm.

I know, and respect, some of the people quoted here but I suspect they have been misquoted and misinterpreted. The article is a wretched and embarrassing case study in poor science literacy. I imagine this is what it was like when germ theory was gaining currency but people just didn't really understand it. Now we seem to be in a transitional period where people are acknowledging biology and genetics but just CAN NOT let go of their myths about the environmental piece so they fit them in to the new science knowledge as if one gave credibility to the other.

Folks, you didn't cause your son or daughter's LIFE THREATENING MENTAL ILLNESS with your off-handed comments and by having had body image concerns or even by your own eating disorder. There is zero evidence that you even CAN do that if you set out to. Can you affect your child's self-image, weight concerns, and self-esteem? Yes, of course, but not to the level of mental illness and there is no evidence that ED patients have had more or less of these influences than anyone else. Why do people keep saying there's evidence of this? Because they have personal investment in these ideas and have weak science literacy. Eating disorders really are qualitatively and quantitatively different than the normal spectrum of brain functioning.

By way of analogy, look at schizophrenia. There was a time when we thought that the thoughts and behaviors were caused by traumatic experiences and secretly terrible mothers and that we could push people into madness and "drive people crazy." Now we know that the delusions and compulsions and deficits are almost entirely biological and pre-wired. There are psychological and experiential influences but they are not this facile accumulation of psychological assaults that even popular culture has largely abandoned.

Look at OCD. Will the parents of patients be more likely to display some of the same traits? Do we examine how orderly and fastidious and anxious the parents are for clues on why Johnny washes his hands dozens of times a day, or see great meaning in how Mommy "has" to color-code her shoes? We do, but not to assign cause but to inform diagnosis and plan treatment.

Children don't live on some precipice between normal and the abyss of dire mental peril that parents must perform perfectly to avoid.

I am the first and loudest parent in the bunch to CONDEMN the weight shaming and body-hating and negative influences by parents and society and would have them STOPPED as terribly damaging for all children -- for all of us. But I would not measure that damage by the incidence of mental illness nor would I allow myself the logical error of seeing those symptoms in the mentally ill as some barometer of the environment.

Kids with EDs develop these thoughts and behaviors independent of environment, coincidental to environment, and in concert with environment. Weight concerns and food phobias and body image distress don't have to have anything to do with environment and most kids suffer the onslaught of horrible environments without becoming mentally ill but they, too, deserve not to have to.

It is natural that parents new to an ED diagnosis would look to their own behaviors and words to understand "what happened?" It is our job as a community to shout, loudly, that such explanations are almost childlike in their logic and very nearly evil in their effect. 
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