Men, Boys and Eating Disorders

We are all human beings, regardless of our gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Yet despite all of that being true, there is still so much prejudice and discrimination against mental health when it comes to who you are.  What strikes me as the most alarming thing about this issue, is that there are so many boys and men suffering in total silence due to the fear of being judged because of what they are suffering from. Males are typically portrayed as the stronger sex both physically and mentally, so any sign of weakness is deemed a bad thing. I have seen first hand how damaged a guy can become due to this cruel stigma that has become attached to mental health issues when it comes to males, in particular, eating disorders.

Males are typically portrayed as the stronger sex both physically and mentally, so any sign of weakness is deemed a bad thing. There has always been this power distinction between both sexes since time began and it has carried out throughout the ages and places and ever-growing pressure on boys and men to live up to such high expectations to be strong, powerful, confident and successful across all areas of life. Social media and advertising have a huge impact upon self-esteem issues, and can easily cause boys and men to hate the way they look because they don’t have a tall, strong and athletic frame.

I have seen first hand how damaged a guy can become due to this cruel stigma that has become attached to mental health issues when it comes to males, in particular, eating disorders.

I have seen first hand how damaged a guy can become due to this cruel stigma that has become attached to mental health issues when it comes to males, in particular, eating disorders.  During my time in a with hospital, I become close friends with a guy who had faced terrible discrimination against his eating disorder, which further caused him to fall deeper into the traps of anorexia. Hearing about how difficult it has been for him to talk about his problems with family, friends and colleagues broke my heart because he felt judged for suffering from an eating disorder. He hid it away for so long as he was pushed aside from receiving help for it because no one was looking out for any indicators this could be an eating disorder issue.  It was during one of the many personal conversations I had with him, that I knew I had to do something about this somehow.

Though I am not a regular viewer, this week BBC Panorama aired ‘Men, Boys and Eating Disorders’ which was discussing the problems within the services provided for eating disorder treatment for boys and men. Though I am already aware of the many failings of the NHS services across the UK for eating disorders, there were a few moments during the programme where I felt terribly sad for the current state of what so many sufferers are battling against.

Taken from BBC Parorama

The short documentary involved Nigel Owens, a professional rugby referee, asking a few different boys and men about their experiences with their eating disorder and how they have had to battle to get the help they needed. Nigel himself has suffered from Bulima Nervosa for half of his life and has never once asked for support in overcoming his demons. What was hard to hear was that he has also never been able to understand why he has been affected, and still continue to fight against the urges to relapses constantly.

A young man called James who suffers from Anorexia Nervosa gave such a powerful statement regarding what his illness was doing to him:

“The actual goal of it is to take everything away from you and eventually kill you” 

I can relate to that.

This message alone shows you that anorexia or any other form of eating disorder has no favourites. Nobody is safe from developing a mental illness involved, exercise and body image. In fact, statistics show that an estimated 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, 400,000 of which are men. I personally believe the total male sufferers is vastly higher than this, but it is only going to show those who have spoken openly about their issues. Also, 50% of eating disorders are classed as EDNOS which leaves a wider spectrum open to many more sufferers going undetected because they don’t fall into the more well-known illnesses.

On the programme, Andrew Barford from BEAT spoke about the negative impact that the stigma surrounding eating disorders and gender has on males. He said that men don’t want to be known for suffering from a ‘girl’s illness’ as this would decrease their masculinity and cause others to see them in a different way. There is not enough awareness for family, friends and professionals to be looking out for signs and symptoms for eating disordered traits when it comes to males, due to this underline stigma and it has to stop as the number of cases continues to rise.

Not only is there a gender issue, there was a highlight of the vast difference in the how fast a referral was made and the amount of treatment received depending on your age. Between two of the cases mentioned (James 20yrs, unnamed 14yrs) there was clearly a gap in how well the eldest of the two was treated compared to the younger one. It only took 11 days from an appointment with the GP to get the 14-year-old admitted to a hospital, whereas the 20-year-old has still yet to be referred to any service with his issues even after 2 years of asking for help.

Do not get me wrong, the care that the 14-year old received was far from sufficient as he was discharged after 3 weeks, and consequently relapsed so was then readmitted for a further 9 weeks, and is still yet to see a dietician. According to NICE guidelines, children should have dietary support, to which I know first hand is not always enforced. I believe it comes down to the ‘postcode lottery’ when you talk about how good the treatment is you get for mental health issues, which is completely outrageous.

Eating disorders rob you of your health, time and in some cases even your life. They have the highest mortality rate of any other psychiatric disorder, which is a terrifying thought. Steven Brazier sadly lost his life to Anorexia and Bulimia aged just 20. His mum said that he vanished in front of her eyes, and strongly believes that if he had received adequate care and treatment, her son would be alive. My heart goes out to her and Steven’s family for their loss because they will never truly know if Steven could have been saved given the right care was in place.

What winds me up was that our current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt declined to comment on the severe deprivation of services for eating disorders across the UK, in particular, the referral process for treatment. How can someone in such a high position in government not have anything to say on this?! There are thousands of lives at risk due to the funding cuts, lack of staff and overall awareness of the services. Dr. Darren Cutinha, a psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital in London stated that eating disorders are probably the only mental health condition whereby the earlier the treatment received, the greater the chances of a full recovery.

One majorly positive thing to come from this episode is that there have been more conversations about male sufferers, and in turn, more support and awareness will take place thanks to it.

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Equality of care, understanding, and treatment is needed across the board for mental health issues. I can only hope that there will come a time when there isn’t such a taboo around it all.

 

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