Friday, December 04, 2009

A few thoughts on "refusal"

One of my gripes with the current thinking about eating disorders lies in the very definition of anorexia nervosa, as found in DSM-IV, the psychiatric bible:

Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.

It's the word refusal, frankly, that bugs the hell out of me, with its implication of volition. It suggests that people with anorexia nervosa could maintain their body weight, if they really really wanted to, which suggests, in turn, that AN is a disease of choice.

Nothing, in my experience, could be further from the truth.

So I was delighted to read, in the November issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders, a literature review by Harvard Medical Schools' Dr. Anne Becker recommending that the word be changed in the next edition of the DSM. According to Becker, "The term 'refusal" in AN criterion A is potentially inaccurate, misleading, and pejorative." Woo-hoo! It doesn't get any more straightforward than that.

Becker, et. al., go on to write:

By implying agency and willfulness, the phrasing . . . may promote stigmatization of AN. In particular, the connotation of the word 'refusal' as behavior that is oppositional may perpetuate the notion that a patient is in control of her symptoms. Research has highlighted the stigmatization of AN both by the public, who appear likely to blame the patient for her illness and to believe she could "pull herself together" if she so desired, and by medical professionals.

Thank you, Dr. Becker, for setting the record straight. May the rest of the ED treatment community take your words to heart.