Understanding Risk Factors for the Development of Eating Disorders: A Qualitative Study

West MidlandsMental Health
Start Date: 1 Jan 2014

Project summary

The aim of this research is to identify risk factors that precede the onset of eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa. This is intended to provide the evidence base for the later development of early detection strategies in schools in a project entitled ’Schoolspace’. Both stages of this research have been funded through the NIHR Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care, July 2013 as part of Service Theme 2: Prevention and early intervention in youth mental health.

There is arguably a dearth of community-based strategies for the early detection of, and intervention in, anorexia in the UK. Moreover, the international school-based interventions for anorexia that do exist focus primarily on dieting, thinness and self-esteem. Research into ways in which self-starving regulates affect, perfectionism and control, and individuals’ relationships with food and eating, suggest that to be effective a future intervention needs to broaden its range of focuses, targeting a wider range of risk factors that lead up to diagnosis (eg. emotional, social, cultural, familial, food or body-related, perfectionism). 

In order to identify these risk factors and establish the part that each plays in the development of anorexia, this qualitative research project explores which ones most arise when individuals themselves narratively reconstruct their pathways to anorexia, and when family members recount their experiences of a relative’s anorexia onset.

To do this,  individuals will be asked within five years of a diagnosis of anorexia to retrospectively reflect on the psycho-social, cultural and biographical factors that precipitated illness onset during a single semi-structured interview with a qualitative researcher. The CLAHRC research team aims to conduct an interview with approximately 30 individuals who are either outpatients or inpatients, and also to interview their parents or siblings if possible.

Prof Max Birchwood