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Warnings about fertility in eating disorder treatment

When it comes to thinking about the physical damage that may be done by an eating disorder, it isn’t uncommon to hear mention of fertility, particularly when it comes to anorexia. In fact, during the 20 years that I lived with anorexia, I was warned about the risk to my fertility many times. These warnings often irritated me, or made me feel worse about myself – even though I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on why. 

I’m a lecturer and academic, and five years into my recovery from an eating disorder, I started to do research into experiences of treatment, and one of these projects centred on how people responded to warnings about their fertility.

The study was open to anyone over 18 with experience of treatment for an eating disorder, and it ultimately recruited 24 women, with ages ranging from 19-46. During interviews with these women, I discovered that warnings about fertility were seen as a difficult and often unhelpful aspect of treatment, and that they rarely had positive associations or impacts for participants. In short, I discovered that:

In exploring how the participants responded, and the often negative ways in which the warnings were received, I wanted to try and reach out to health professionals to raise questions about this routine, but clearly complex, aspect of eating disorder treatment. The participants in the study were warned about their fertility by a range of health professionals, including GPs, counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and nurses. People in these roles might like to consider the following:

Eating disorder treatment has come a long way since I was diagnosed in 1990, age 14. But we can still strive to make it better. Having an eating disorder can be a terrifying place to be, both mentally and physically. Let’s make sure that all aspects of treatment are compassionate: we need to respect the individuality of the patient, and enable explorations of future possibilities in ways which are both personal and meaningful. 

Contributed by Su