Around 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder (1). Although there are still so many individuals suffering undiagnosed pro-longing their illness and potentially preventing treatment from having an effective outcome for them to recover.
I have experienced first-hand how traumatic it is to be pinned against set criteria that apparently deems whether you are ill enough and to be told that you don’t fit the specifications to get access to the life-saving treatment.
For me, it all boils down to the lack of compassion and understanding surrounding what eating disorders really are and how the connotations focus merely on the aesthetical symptoms, neglecting the foundations of how these debilitating and consuming illnesses are in the mind.
This year for Eating Disorder Awareness Week the campaign has the theme of Breaking The Barriers which is something that I have personally strived to do since starting this blog.
Stereotypes are damaging for those who suffer from an eating disorder as they are creating an exclusion for those who are not in line with what is being associated with the illness. They paint a picture that casts over the vast spectrum of different biological, psychological and sociocultural factors that are found within these mental health conditions (2)
In their nature, eating disorders are incredibly secretive, elusive and complex which makes it even harder for those who are suffering to seek help, let alone face the barriers that they are likely to encounter when don’t meet the expectations of what they are meant to look and act like.
I wanted to highlight just a few of the common barriers that I feel are so important to be broken down so that there is a clearer understanding for eating disorders and how there can be more compassion towards those who are in need of care and support.
Dump The Scales
You can’t measure the severity of an eating disorder purely based on the number on the scales alone. You can’t determine whether a person is well enough based on how they look. Eating disorders come in many different forms, despite what the stereotype might be. Just before the release of the latest DSM (Diagnostic Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria for eating disorders, it was estimated that 10% have anorexia, 40% have bulimia, which leaves 60% for other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED)(3).
Mental health champion Hope Virgo created the “Dump The Scales” campaign to change the way the NHS assesses individuals who have eating disorders. Currently, there are so many people being turned away from getting access to the treatment they desperately need because they do not fall within the ‘critical’ BMI range, which is prolonging suffering and causing detrimental damage to their chances of recovering or surviving.
Please sign the petition HERE – this could really help save lives!
Man Have Them Too
Results from Recent community-based epidemiological studies suggest that as many as 25% of people with an eating disorder are male (4), though I believe there are many more that are undiagnosed through fear of coming forward to ask for help. Mental health does not discriminate based on gender, race or ethnicity. Eating disorders are heavily associated as being a feminine illness, but this is such a false representation of a mental health condition that occurs from circumstances and psychological problems that are found in both genders. Men are afraid to come forward and talk about their eating disorder because of the stigma it holds, and that could have them being seen as not masculine.
It doesn’t help that the majority of research for eating disorders is focused on females (5) and not an equal gender split. In one qualitative study, it was found that many of the participants felt that some of their support systems were not able to understand their eating, which led to reinforced stigmatisation by friends, family and even medical professionals (6)
For more information about men and eating disorders follow this link HERE.
They Are Still The Same Person
I knew that I was known as the girl with an eating disorder; the anorexic. It became my identity as that was the only association people made about me for a very long time. That was all that was talked about to me or around me. But I was still me.
When someone becomes unwell with any illness, we don’t go around saying that they are a ‘cold’ or a ‘fever’. Yet there is mistreatment when it comes to mental health. The people who are suffering are already consumed by their illness, and so to only have them viewed through their eating disorder is going to affirm to them that, that is all they are good for. By separating the illness from the person, you get to understand their world more clearly, and they can start seeing for themselves that they have so much more value and purpose than their illness.
Food Is Not The Enemy
There is such a strong misconception that those who have an eating disorder must hate food. But it couldn’t be more wrong, as many have an increased obsession with food that stretches over their entire lives. Sufferers are often thinking about food, looking and analysing food, watching cooking shows and consumed when shopping for food.
For me, it was a way of distracting myself away from the internal dialogue that was entrenched in me and avoiding to deal with the things that had happened to me. I was punishing myself as I truly believed that I didn’t deserve to eat. Although I feared food, I never stopped wanting to be able to eat well and be happy within myself.
It’s More Than Just Food
For as much as an eating disorder is consumed with an obsession with food and eating, the implications of such negative health behaviours cross over into other areas of a person’s life. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is very common with those who have an eating disorder, as both conditions have symptoms of high anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality, or have perfectionist traits (7). As I mentioned before, the individual has taken to masking their emotions through negative food behaviours and could also become obsessed with their appearance as a way of coping with their lack of self-esteem. These individuals are unable to see their worth, and the fact that they deserve to take care of themselves in a healthier way than through the rigidity of their eating disorder.
This is why it is important for professionals to adopt a greater understanding of the complexities of eating disorders and help improve services and access to treatment for all those who need it. Early intervention can decrease the length of time someone will suffer greatly from their illness, ultimately saving their life from total destruction.
Here are a few ways you can get involved in helping to break barriers in services for eating disorders:
Tell your MP to take part in BEAT’s Lobby Day in Parliament:
Find out more information HERE
Email your MP to extend the waiting times targets for everyone to ensure that people of all ages can access eating disorder treatment as soon as they need it:
Sign the petition for more eating disorder training for medical students:
- Salafia, E. H. B., Jones, M. E., Haugen, E. C., & Schaefer, M. K. (2015). Perceptions of the causes of eating disorders: a comparison of individuals with and without eating disorders. Journal of eating disorders, 3(1), 32.
- House of Commons Debate Pack on Eating Disorders 2018
- Baker, J., Brownley, K., Thornton, L., Bardone-Cone, A., & Bulik, C. (2018). S67. Biomarker Change During Inpatient Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa and Associations With Weight Outcomes. Biological Psychiatry, 83(9), S372-S373.
- Edwards, S. (2018). Eating Disorders: A Male Perspective.
- Speranza, M., Corcos, M., Godart, N., Loas, G., Guilbaud, O., Jeammet, P., & Flament, M. (2001). Obsessive compulsive disorders in eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 2(3), 193-207.