As Eating Disorder Awareness Week draws to a close, Áine Kenny looks at the stigma surrounding the illnesses.
Eating disorders are more common than you think. While there are many different forms of eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified) binge-eating, and orthorexia, all are equally dangerous. I think that eating disorders are greatly misunderstood by our society. If you ever had an eating disorder or have a loved one who has suffered from one, I can guarantee many well-meaning people have said “just eat more”. As if it is that simple! Eating disorders are not only about food, they are about complex issues. Often, they are used as a coping mechanism for anxiety or stress.
 
The Department of Health and Children in Ireland estimates that up to 200,000 people are affected by eating disorders, with 400 new cases discovered each year, leading to 80 deaths per year. There is a certain stigma with eating disorders, as if they aren’t “real” mental health issues such as depression or bipolar. While it is great to see the stigma surrounding the latter reduced, we have a long way to go when it comes to the likes of anorexia and especially EDNOS.
 
Many people often say it is “attention-seeking” behaviour, as if people have control over their eating habits when they have an eating disorder. They don’t. They have no more control over their own thoughts than a person with clinical depression. Serious therapy is needed, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to retrain the mind into making normal associations surrounding food and exercise.
 
There is such a lack of awareness to what exactly constitutes an eating disorder, which leaves many cases undiagnosed. Essentially it is any abnormal behaviour or distress surrounding food or eating. But perhaps the most frightening thing of all is that people do not understand how dangerous having an eating disorder is. Lack of food results in starvation, culminating in death. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the mortality rates for eating disorders are as follows: 4% for anorexia nervosa, 3.9% for bulimia nervosa, and 5.2% for eating disorder not otherwise specified.
 
It can be very frustrating for family and friends trying to help someone with an ED. People suffering from this mental health problem need serious medical intervention, not only for their physical needs but their mental needs too.
 
It is important to bear in mind that it is not the sufferer’s fault, and people can be treated and go on to lead healthy and happy lives. Accessing the right treatment is an issue, especially when it comes to people with an EDNOS.
 
There is even a lack of knowledge among regular medical professionals. Through my own personal experience, it took the patient to be on the brink of death before we found the right treatment for them. There is a certain helplessness surrounding the whole situation. When people say to just try and get the person to eat, don't you think we've tried that? Do you think we didn’t try everything? What are we supposed to do, hold them down and force feed them? No, because this will cause the person serious distress.
 
You will never fully understand eating disorders unless you have one or know someone who has one. But I am here to tell you that before it gets better, it might have to get worse. Magical recovery will not happen overnight. Recovery is a slow and pain-staking process, but it is possible. What we need now is not only an open and frank discussion about body image, as body image sometimes has nothing to do with why a person develops an ED.
 
We need to learn how to manage our general mental health better, and have more intervention at the early stages of an ED. We also need more research into the new and possibly more frightening ED called orthorexia, which is the obsession with having a healthy diet and getting enough exercise. This ED is a lot harder to put our fingers on as there is nothing wrong with being healthy. However, the clean-eating habits and exercising can spiral out of control. So, let’s break the silence surrounding this illness, and work together to help those struggling with an eating disorder.
 
If you have been affected by the contents of this article, help and information for eating disorders can be found here:
http://www.bodywhys.ie/ Helpline: 1890 200 444
 
Samaritans can be called for free 24/7 on: 116 123