We all face challenges in our lives--some physical, some mental, and others, emotional. The majority of those challenges aren’t public. As a society, we are quick to assume a person’s health, feelings, or status based on their appearance. This is a serious issue. Assuming someone is a certain way based on how they look can wreck that person’s self-perception. That person could be going through any number of difficulties that you know nothing about. So, through spreading awareness of psychological illnesses, we may be able to build empathy and compassion that we didn’t have before.
This week, February 27 - March 5, 2023, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In this article, you will discover how common eating disorders are and how damaging they can be to people’s mental and physical health. This may be a sensitive subject, so please be aware that there may be triggers in the following information.
What Is An Eating Disorder?
The basic definition of an eating disorder is a mental condition that persistently impairs eating behaviors and negatively impacts the individual’s physical and mental health. There are many different types of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID), Rumination Disorder, Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED), Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), Binge Eating Disorder, etc. Although some are more common than others, this does not mean one is more or less serious than the others. It is important to validate everyone’s feelings and try to help and understand them without denying their emotions.
Atypical is a term used to describe eating disorder patients that show no physical signs of having an eating disorder (no concerning fluctuation in body weight). Atypical eating disorders are much more prevalent than typical eating disorders, and they are just as dangerous. Considering there are many people who are severely suffering even without showing physical symptoms, comments about body image, weight, exercise, and food should be used appropriately.
It’s Bigger Than You Think (Some Statistics)
At least 9% of the population, or 28.8 million American citizens, will have experienced an eating disorder in their lifetime.
The economic cost of eating disorders adds up to about $64.7 million a year.
Approximately 10,200 deaths-one every 52 minutes-were a direct result of an eating disorder in 2018.
One in five of those deaths are the result of suicide.
"Healthy people come in all different body sizes; so do starving people. A person doesn't have to appear underweight for their body to be suffering from the impacts of eating disorder behaviors." — Beth Pilcher, Licensed Independent Social Worker-Clinical Practice, founder of Charleston Eating Disorder Treatment in Charleston, SC.
History and Stigma Around Mental Illness
In the past, mental illness has been looked down upon. Many people were put in institutions that did not know how to properly handle the conditions their patients were in; it was more like a prison. Torturous “treatments” and experiments were applied on the patients which made their stay even more unbearable. In today’s society, we know more about how to care for these patients, and most people that do seek help find some relief. However, this does not mean there isn’t a lingering stigma.
I have heard and seen first hand the treatment of those with eating disorders, and to say that those comments were invalidating to the individual would be an understatement. The feeling is indescribable. Hearing those comments from peers, family, or important people in your life can make you feel worthless or like you are the problem. When the pandemic put us into lockdown in spring of 2020, people felt more confined and alone. This increased the number of people suffering from mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many others. On the bright side, there became a better understanding in society about the challenges individuals face.
While the general understanding of others has improved, many people still stigmatize eating disorders and mental illness. It is a common misconception that eating disorder behaviors are always either Anorexia (starvation) and/or Bulimia (regurgitation) or that it is only a “girl’s problem.” In reality, eating disorders take many different forms that can often go overlooked because they are not physically noticeable. They know no gender, race, or age. That is why it is important to be cognizant of others in any environment. Think about if the thing you are about to say may be triggering, and if it is, try to form your sentence differently, in a way that is less provocative. This is a safer way to speak given that you do not know what others may be going through.
Even if the people in your life say that they are fine, remember to check in on them once in a while. Just asking how their day is going or letting them know you are there for them can be comforting. It takes two seconds out of your day to text someone, and it is a simple act of kindness that can make a world's difference.
Do Not Be Afraid
If you may be struggling with eating, exercise, body image, or self esteem, remember that you are not alone, and you don’t have to struggle alone either. There are people who love you and want to help. Your life is so important, and you are worthy to be here and be happy. Your feelings are valid. The school counselors are always there to guide you with any issues. Asking for help may be frightening, but do not be afraid--be strong.
The following resources are available at any time by phone:
National Eating Disorder Association Hotline: 1-800-931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988