Could Redefining Anorexia Improve Treatment?

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It is of no doubt to the large majority of people that eating disorders such as anorexia are a form of illness, but new findings suggest recategorizing the condition as a ‘passion’ will have immediate practical and positive effects on treatment and therapy of the condition.

To be clear, a ‘passion’ in this instance refers to a category of mental illness characterized by lead researcher Louis C. Charland as being “relatively stable, lasting months or years. It plays a significant role in motivating, determining, and organizing a person’s long-term behavior around a fixed idea. This makes passions different from feelings and emotions, which are simpler states of shorter duration.”

Charland is from Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy. The study, published in a recent issue of Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, is novel in that philosophers have collaborated with psychiatrists, scientists and clinicians to arrive at this new recommended categorization.

“Anorexia nervosa is associated with fear and anxiety over gaining weight and has strong attachments with becoming thin,” said Charland , a professor at Western’s Arts & Humanities and Health Sciences faculties, as well as the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “Anorexia nervosa is notorious for being enduring and difficult to treat. Current treatments are highly cognitive in nature and are not always effective.”

The scientific community seems to support Charland’s argument as well, as a published commentary by Dr. George Szmukler accompanying the study calls the findings an “original contribution” and “a promising way forward for our understanding and treatment of anorexia nervosa.”

“Passions force us to work through some difficult issues, for example, justifications for involuntary treatment based on impairments of decision-making capacity,” wrote Szmukler, who also notes an interesting parallel with addiction that deserves to be explored.

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