Published On: Sun, Dec 2nd, 2012

UCSD Course Offerings are Suspect

I was ranting to a fellow grad student a few days ago about my discontent with a course I’m TA-ing in the Psychology department. It wasn’t about the professor or the work-load. It was about why such an inconsequential course was being offered at all. The course is called ‘Eating Disorders’ and spends 10 weeks teaching students the facts about Anorexia and Bulimia. At this point, some of you might be thinking.. this guy is about to sound like a prick. Just hear me out. I think teaching psychology students about eating disorders is important. I just don’t think this topic warrants its very own course. With the multitude of psychological disorders out there, why is eating disorders remarkable enough to be covered in such length? Going in, I thought it must be due to the devastating prevalence and mortality rate that eating disorders inflicts upon society. But here’s the stats:

Anorexia affects 0.008% of the general population with the highest prevelence in teen females ~ 0.3% (Hoek, 2006). That means, in a city the size of San Diego (~1 million people ~8 biggest city in the US) we can expect around 80 people to have anorexia. Of those 80 people, 0.56% of them can be expected to die per decade (Sullivan, 1995) from their eating disorder. This equates to one person dying every two decades from an eating disorder in San Diego (0.45 people per decade). To put this into perspective, 900 people die every year in the USA from falling off furniture (see image below for other weird death statistics).

After learning this, it struck me that Anorexia wasn’t as big of a societal problem as I had assumed going in. And almost nobody that has an eating disorder dies from it. In fact, many people that have an eating disorder are able to make a psychological recovery (there are however lasting biophysical consequences like bone density loss and metabolic problems).

Now that it seems like I’ve fully ‘dissed’ eating disorders I’m going to back peddle. I think eating disorders is a real problem. Those that acquire an eating disorder are in significant distress and it has lasting consequences in their lives and with their friends and families. We should definitely work to develop efficient treatment programs for these individuals. Likewise, we should develop our understanding of developmental disabilities and cultivate efficient treatment programs for these individuals. According to the CDC 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. CDC data state that 1 in 88 children develop Autism Spectrum Disorder – orders of magnitude more prevalent than eating disorders.

If Autism is way more prevalent than eating disorders, and UCSD has a course on eating disorders, it should be a no-brainer that they offer a psychology course called ‘Autism’. Do they? No. They can’t offer a course on every mental disorder out there on the market, that would require far to much resources. So they pick and choose what to offer. I wonder then, what criterion they use to make these decisions. It doesn’t seem to be societal impact (based on the stats above) otherwise we’d see a course on Autism and not eating disorders. Maybe it’s just that we don’t know enough about Autism yet to teach a meaningful empirically-based course on the topic, and we do with eating disorders. Let me tell you right now, this is bullshit. Here’s an excerpt from one of chapters students in this course were required to read and were then tested on:

From – Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Persuit of Thinness by by Margo Maine
(Here’s the Chapter)
“A father whose own upbringing has diminished the importance of interpersonal connections and whose sense of self emanates from separateness may not recognize his daughter’s need for intimate relationships. The daughter begins to feel ashamed of her desire for contact with dad, and she may begin to doubt the valididty of her appetites, be they for relationships, food, or sex.”

I know Freudian BS when I see it, and this is pure Freudian. So now, we’ve gone -from- offering a course on a psychological disorder that is not nearly as prevalent than some other disorders out there -to- offering a course that isn’t even taught with an empirical basis. I can forgive the former, but there is no excuse for the latter. By offering this course we are doing a disservice to our students. Something has to change…

weird death statistics

Hoek, Hans Wijbrand (2006). Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 19(4):389-394, July 2006.

Sullivan PF (1995). Mortality in anorexia nervosa. Am J Psychiatry 152:1073–1074

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