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    Why aren't teens seeking eating disorder treatment?

    Eating disorders can be difficult to diagnose and manage, and to make matters more complicated, a recent study reveals that just 20% of teenagers with eating disorders seek treatment from a medical professional.

    The study collected data from a national sample of adolescents aged 13 to 18 years to identify how many met criteria for eating disorders. Conducted through interviews, the study surveyed sociodemographic data, characteristics of eating disorders, and mental health history and comorbidities.

    A mere 20% of the teenagers with eating disorders in the study sample sought treatment, with girls being 2.2 times more likely to seek treatment than boys. Differences were also noted in likelihood to seek treatment based on eating disorder type. Adolescents with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa were 2.4 and 1.9 times more likely, respectively, to receive treatment than adolescents with binge eating disorders.

    There were few differences found in treatment seeking across socioeconomic divides, but teenagers with at least 1 parent with a college education were 1.8 times more likely to seek treatment than children of parents with no college education.

    Researchers also found little difference in treatment-seeking behavior in relation to mental health history, but noted that adolescents who had in the past used mental health services for the treatment of emotional or behavioral problems were 1.7 times more likely to seek treatment for their eating disorder than those who hadn’t had previous experience with mental health services.

    Recommended: Why family meals matter

    Treatment-seeking behaviors improve with age, the study notes, with adolescents aged 17 to 18 years being 4.4 times more likely than those aged 13 to 14 years to seek treatment for eating disorders.

    Lauren Forrest, MA, a graduate assistant in the Department of Psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and lead author of the study, says many teenagers don’t seek treatment for eating disorders even though many have had previous interactions with healthcare providers for emotional or behavioral problems.

    Forrest says she was surprised at how seldom adolescents with eating disorders sought treatment. The study didn’t address why those individuals went without treatment, but Forrest says it’s something that she hopes will be on the radar of providers and parents.

    “The findings highlighted how important it is to study individuals with eating disorders who have and have not sought treatment, so that we can be sure that the field’s knowledge about eating disorders isn’t based primarily on the subset of folks who are seeking treatment,” Forrest says. “Although this study didn’t assess what might have been preventing adolescents from seeking treatment for their eating disorders, the findings provide some ideas.”

    NEXT: More revelations from the study

    Rachael Zimlich, RN
    Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes regularly for Contemporary Pediatrics, Managed Healthcare ...

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