Let's talk about eating disorders

26 February 2016

I sometimes wonder why we need an entire week to raise awareness of eating disorders every year.

Everyone has heard of eating disorders and I’d take a guess that most of you will be able to name at least one celebrity who has had anorexia. Likewise, when people ask me what I do for a living and I respond “I work with eating disorders” no one has ever said responded “what are they?” 

So why all the awareness?

What I failed to add above is that the typical response if you tell people you work with eating disorders is one of three things: a chuckle and the reply, “Oh I wish I had one of those, my problem is I eat too much”; a look of bewilderment and fear; or, “Like those celebrities who don’t eat?”

These are things I have heard on a weekly basis; they might even be something you have once said or thought when the topic of eating disorders is on the news or brought up in conversation. And don’t get me wrong, I probably have said these myself in passing. This highlights that it isn’t that we don’t know that eating disorders exist, it’s that we don’t really understand them or the seriousness of the condition and that can make us embarrassed or fearful of the topic.

Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia aren’t about losing weight or wanting to be thin, they are serious mental health conditions that develop because of a range of biological, genetic, social and psychological reasons.

The stats

At any one time over 700,000 people in the UK have a diagnosed eating disorder. Research suggests that this number vastly underestimates the true size of the problem in the UK with estimates suggesting that up to 80% of individuals who screen positively for having an eating disorder had never accessed help or support.

Worryingly, if someone does seek help it’s often significantly delayed and can take years with one study showing that the average delay in help-seeking for someone with anorexia is almost two years. That rises to over eight years for bulimia and binge eating disorders.

As eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health problem and have serious physical as well as psychological symptoms, any delay can have serious consequences. 
And this is why we still need to continue creating greater awareness of these disorders. With research suggesting at least 1 in 20 people will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, such delays can not only result in the illness becoming more difficult to treat, but they also have a significant cost to life.

With most eating disorders starting during early adolescence, delays in accessing treatment can mean that young people lose out in the formative experiences of being a teenager that help us learn who we are and develop our identity. The biggest struggle that I’ve heard time and time again from individuals in recovery is having to learn who they are years later after everyone else has moved on; “I don’t know who I am without my eating disorder because I never learnt who I was”.  

Focusing on prevention

It is no doubt that eating disorders need more investment and research into how we can best treat them. However, a focus on prevention and early intervention is the best way to tackle the problem.

Let's talk

When we talk more openly about issues related to mental health, we are working not only to create awareness and allow individuals to recognise the disorder but we are also trying to break down the fear and embarrassment that stops others talking out.

When I tell people about my work I am often shocked how both complete strangers and people who I have known for years will instantly disclose, “Oh I’ve had bulimia,” or talk about someone they know who has had an eating disorder.

It isn’t that we don’t want to talk about eating disorders, it’s that first we need to create a safe space where we can openly talk and feel comfortable with the subject. Ten years ago breast cancer was a taboo health condition, let’s use awareness weeks like Eating Disorders Awareness Week to help positively change how we feel about mental health and eating disorders.

So this Eating Disorders Awareness Week let’s make the time to talk about them, whether that is by creating the opportunity to talk with family or friends about eating disorders or if it is to share your support by using #EDAW16.

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