Some Psychiatrists See 'Shopaholic' As a Diagnosis
Friday, October 13, 2006
Lucille Schenk bought $20,000 worth of jewelry a year ago, plunging herself into debt and despair. She knew something was wrong but couldn't help herself: For hours each day, she watched a jewelry channel and the Home Shopping Network, until the salespeople felt like family.
She did most of her binge buying late at night. Often, after her purchases arrived, she returned them, knowing she could not afford them. Then she would see the same items on TV and buy them again.
When Schenk finally sought help, New York psychologist April Lane Benson advised her to have a "conversation" with the jewelry before she made her next purchase, as a way to put some distance between herself and her compulsion.
"I would say, 'You are so beautiful, I can't live without you; I love the way you sparkle,' " recalled Schenk, 62, in an interview. "The jewelry would say back, 'You need me. You look pretty when you wear me.' I would say, 'I do need you. I can't possibly think of being without you. But something has to change. I need to stop this. I can't afford a penny more.' "
There may be more than 10 million people like Schenk in the United States, according to a study published this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry. They shop compulsively, buy things they do not need and often cannot afford, and place their work, their families and their mental health in jeopardy.
The problem is widespread and serious enough that the American Psychiatric Association, which is updating its influential "bible" of mental disorders, is weighing whether to list compulsive buying as a disorder.
That proposal is sure to stir a long-running debate about whether psychiatry is turning every troubling aspect of human behavior into a disease. Some researchers argue that categorizing binge buying as a medical problem takes the focus away from social factors such as the impact of advertising, easy credit and commercialization.
Avis Mysyk, an anthropologist at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, said therapists should not be advised to "throw the person out of your office" but added: "One thing with the holistic perspective is we don't isolate the individual from the wider context, or just look at the wider context to the exclusion of the individual."
There are no historical data to show whether the number of people affected is growing, but experts agree that the easy access to shopping provided by the Internet, 24-hour cable networks and malls has probably had an impact.
Most people can use shopping networks and credit cards without losing control, experts note. But for people who cannot control themselves, as with addictions to alcohol or gambling, easy availability of the thing they crave aggravates the problem. Like other addicts, binge buyers usually want to stop but find they cannot.
The new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry was conducted by a team led by Lorrin M. Koran, a psychiatrist at Stanford University.
Besides the sheer number of people, Koran said what surprised him was that men were just as likely as women to be binge buyers. The study also found that compulsive buyers were likely to earn less than $50,000.