Banishing the stigma attached to eating disorders

To mark the launch of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Beat have launched a report about the discrimination that people living with an eating disorders often face at work.

Worryingly, 1 in 3 people with eating disorders responded that they had experienced stigma or discrimination in the workplace, and more than 80% said that they didn’t feel their employers were ‘informed’ about eating disorders or how to handle them.

This stigma and discrimination had a considerable impact on 40% of people’s recovery, with many feeling they couldn’t access the support they needed for their eating disorder at work. Surprisingly, 38% of respondents told Beat that they had used annual leave to attend medical appointments for their eating disorder.

'Stigma is by far one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of someone when they are experiencing a mental health problem'

These findings highlight just how much of an effect our attitudes and opinions about mental health problems can have. Stigma is by far one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of someone when they are experiencing a mental health problem as it impacts on their likelihood to seek help, their physical health, and has even been identified as one of the key reasons for attempted suicide.

Eating disorders in particular are highly stigmatised, with people commonly dismissing this serious condition as a fad, a ploy for attention, or simply normal behaviour.

Talking openly

To put this into perspective, it might be simpler if I use a personal anecdote. I have experienced anorexia from an early age and I was once told not to tell people about my illness or my past when I was in recovery so as not to scare them. I’ve since heard similar stories repeated to me over and over again by fellow individuals with eating disorders, as well as from their friends and carers.

The findings from Beat’s workplace report show the impact of the lack of understanding and acceptance of eating disorders as serious illnesses within the workplace. 

I decided two years ago that I wasn’t going to allow this stigma to stop me any longer and started to openly talk about my experience of anorexia. Being able to talk about it openly has probably been the biggest benefit to my mental health in the 17 years I’ve struggled with this illness. It’s hard to explain just how much it’s benefitted me to simply feel ‘normal’, in my own, odd sort of way.

In order for people with eating disorders to feel safe enough to disclose, they need understanding. They need empathy. They need society to realise it isn’t a phase, it’s not basic insecurity, and that their pain isn’t trivial. They need public acceptance that eating disorders are a serious mental illness, and they need your support.

Stephanie McAlinden is a PHD student at Queen's University, Belfast

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Read Beat's report