Eating Disorders Are Deadly...And The Silence Around Them Even More So

27th February-5th March 2017 is eating disorder awareness week. Eating disorders are a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. They are serious mental illnesses which over 725,000 men and women in the UK alone are affected by, which is why raising awareness of them is so vital.
Its difficult to know where to start when discussing eating disorders. There are so many different types, a variety of symptoms and anyone can be targeted by them, which is what makes talking about the topic so tricky. Eating disorders do not discriminate. People of any skin colour, religion, gender, sexuality, weight, nationality or social class can suffer from them and people from all walks of life are suffering from them yet, for some bizarre reason, eating disorders are still a taboo subject and are frowned upon when discussed. People with eating disorders are stereotyped as emaciated teenage girls who starve themselves because they want to look like the models they see on the covers of magazines and, while this is sometimes the case, an eating disorder is just as likely to belong to an old, overweight male as it is a young, thin female. For this reason, it has become increasingly difficult for eating disorder sufferers to open up about the battle they are facing. Many eating disorder sufferers remain silent out of fear of being judged, not getting the correct treatment or being throw into a pile with other mental illness sufferers because they're "Just looking for attention." It should not be this way. It cannot be this way. All ED sufferers, regardless of their lifestyles or circumstances, deserve to live a happy, fulfilled life, as we all do, therefore, it's pertinent that we begin raising more awareness of the impact they're having and educate ourselves on what we can do to help.

"People talk about eating disorders all the time! We don't need an awareness week!" You may say, however, allow me to provide you with some alarming facts:

  • 4 out of 5 children are afraid of being 'fat'
  • There are cases of children as young as 6 suffering from an eating disorder
  • Anorexia is the third most common long-term illness amongst teenagers
  • Men are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders because the the perception that they are "women's diseases"
  • Ages 12-26 make up 95% of those who have an eating disorder
  • Up to 43% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies
  • 10 million males in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives
  • A mere 10% of people with eating disorders receive treatment and, of those, only 35% seek treatment from a facility that specialises in eating disorders
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. For women ages 15-24, the mortality rate of anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death
  • More than 50% of teen girls and nearly 33% of teen boys admit to using unhealthy methods to control their weight including smoking cigarettes, skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, or taking laxatives

Eating disorders are incredibly serious conditions that really can tear apart people's lives but they are also treatable and its more than possible for anyone with an ED to make a full recovery - its important that we recognise both of these things. We must recognise that 1) eating disorders cannot be ignored because ignoring them has fatal consequences and 2) with the right help, support and treatment, eating disorders can be beaten. The sooner someone gets the treatment they require, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. We cannot wait until a person is on the brink of death to say "Actually, I think you ought to see a doctor, this is getting out of hand." Putting reaching out for help off is not an option, for either the ED sufferer or their family/friends. We must educate ourselves so we can spot the signs instantly and know exactly what to do in order to be there for our loved ones.

But where do we start with educating ourselves? Good question as the world of mental health really is a perplexing place and mental illnesses aren't something that can be easily understood if you do not occupy one yourself. That being said, we can try, we must try in fact. Thanks to technological advances, we have all the information we could possibly need to know about eating disorders right at our fingertips. There are websites made by charities, social media sites, forums, chat rooms, books, petitions, videos, people you can chat to who've experienced mental health issues. Personally, I believe there to be no excuse for us being so uneducated and inconsiderate when it comes to eating disorders. I understand the likelihood of us becoming experts overnight is slim. I understand we aren't all going to be doctors. I understand not all of us know someone with an eating disorder. I understand its difficult to retain large amounts of information. I understand you have other things to be doing and live a busy life. And that's okay because nobody needs to know everything, even the people you think are totally clued up probably aren't. That being said, however, just by Googling the definition of something or scrolling through a mental health account on Twitter, you can learn so much. Educating yourself on one area of mental illnesses, like eating disorders, could help you, potentially, save a life. So, do your reading and destroy any misconceptions or prejudgements you may have about eating disorders. If you have questions, do not be afraid to ask them because talking is what we need here. We need people to talk about their struggles and we need to talk to those who are struggling. There's no such thing as a stupid question and becoming more knowledgeable about something which is affecting a large amount of the population is only going to benefit us all.

As previously mentioned, the stigma surrounding eating disorders is undeniable, hence why many suffer in silence until its too late. There's a stigma regarding mental illness in general - that's indisputable but, when it comes to eating disorders, thousands of people are genuinely slowly killing themselves by obtaining bad eating habits. We must encourage those who are suffering to open up about their feelings as mental illnesses are extremely isolating. They're in your head, therefore, no one else can see them or is even aware of them unless you let them in. Eating disorders isolate you and force you to believe you have no one when, in fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. To anyone struggling with an eating disorder right now, people are here for you, despite what your ED tells you. I know it's telling you that nobody cares but trust me when I say that they do. No one wants you to live a life of relentless suffering and you owe it to yourself to get help. It isn't easy, when is anything ever easy anymore? But that only means, when you do ask for help, the whole recovery process will feel so much more worth it as you'll know how difficult it was to speak out and say "Actually, I'm not okay." But to anyone who isn't suffering with an ED, it isn't all on the sufferer's shoulders as, like I just said, asking for help is one of the bravest things anyone could ever do and its incredibly daunting BECAUSE of the STIGMA surrounding eating disorders. It isn't as straightforward as you think for someone with an ED to make the first move, so, we have to be there for them and reassure them that we want to help. I'm not telling you to say to every person you meet "HEY IF YOU HAVE AN EATING DISORDER, I'M HERE TO HELP!!!" I'm just urging you to show people you love that you care as anyone could be affected by an ED at any time. Just, in general, be there for people and encourage others to be there too. If you do happen to know someone with an eating disorder, make sure you know how to approach the topic. Don't just bring it up in a school assembly or an office meeting in front of 100 people, be sensitive, take things slowly, take into account that person and what they feel comfortable with. Really think your actions through before carrying them out, otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good.
There is no shame in suffering with an eating disorder. As I said, thousands of people have them. If one can wake up every day and face a battle within their own heads that no one else is aware of, then one beat that battle and recover because suffering from a mental illness is one of the greatest acts of courage. They're invisible, slowing killing those that walk their path, but it doesn't have to be that way. Eating disorder sufferers need to know that the resources available to them are endless and the people by their side only want what's best for their well being. Thanks to medical and technological developments, eating disorder sufferers have every chance of living a normal, healthy life, with a HEALTHY relationship with food. Eating disorder sufferers must be told that we will not judge them for their struggles. We know that they are so much more than their mental illness and we are willing to offer a helping hand for no benefit of our own and do something to help. Personally, I don't want to live in a world where people feel worthless, depressed, as though they aren't capable of living a healthy life, as if they aren't supposed to eat or as if they can only eat large amounts. I want people to know that I understand their battles and I am prepared to go out of my way to make them subside. Because, you see, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, despite what the voices inside of our heads tell us. Those voices lie, they trick, they tease, they bully but they are nothing, they are the worthless ones. Those voices get a kick out of you feeling miserable so its about time we started proving them wrong. All of us have the ability to overcome any obstacle placed in our path with a little bit of strength, determination, patience and love from those who want to see us succeed. We just need to believe in ourselves that we can do anything we want and believe in others that they can recover from something that wants them to do anything but.

On the topic of ED sufferers receiving treatment, despite there being a range of services such as charities, counsellors and doctors, out there, these services could all be improved. For example, ED face long waits before accessing treatment and GPs aren't always fully equipped in order to give patients the treatment they need in terms of recognising the signs. Did you know that only 15p is spent on ED research per person affected? Therefore, we need to put pressure on professionals, not just in ED Awareness Week but every week because there is so much we could be offering to eating disorder occupants yet people are still receiving bad service from doctors or just generally feeling like there's nothing out there for them.
Below is a list of treatments recommended for those with different types of eating disorders, taken from the website BEAT - an amazing ED organisation which explain things better than I could.

The types of eating disorder are:

  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia
  • Binge eating disorder (BED)
  • Emotional Overeating
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
  • Disordered eating / eating problems
and different treatment is required for each. Take a read of the information below, if not for the sake of your own health but for the sake of the health of those around you.

Where to get help
The first port of call when looking for help is always through your GP. You could also talk to a friend, your parents or someone at school, university or work. You could ask them to visit the GP with you if you are worried about going on your own.

Your GP and other members of the primary care team, like your practice nurse, will play an important part in this first step of identifying your eating disorder. Sometimes a GP might refer you straight to an eating disorder specialist or they might want you to come back after to see how you are. Please don’t see this as a sign that you don’t deserve treatment but persevere.

Your GP will look at your weight for your age and might monitor significant weight changes, ask about concerns you have over your weight or body shape, talk about eating disorder behaviours and might also take some blood for testing. Although it might seem daunting try to be as open with the doctor about how you are feeling and the impact your eating difficulties are having on you. If you feel nervous about what might happen during the appointment you can talk to your doctor about this at the start. You might find it helpful to write down the points you would like to talk about before your appointment.

If your GP thinks you might have an eating disorder they should refer you for an assessment and possible treatment by a person who has specialist eating disorder knowledge. This should happen as quickly as possible. You might find it useful to take a look at the NICE guidelines which provide clinical information about eating disorders and how they should be treated. They outline the best practice that healthcare professionals should follow when treating eating disorders.

Treatment for Anorexia
You should expect that most of your treatment will be as an outpatient and any psychological treatment should last for at least six months. If you are thought to be at serious risk you might be recommended for inpatient or day patient treatment.

Psychological treatments such as cognitive analytic therapy (CAT), cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), focal psychodynamic therapy and family therapy are some treatments that you might be referred to once diagnosed with anorexia. They aim to help psychological recovery and you should expect that aspects of your physical health should be monitored at the same time. You might also have access to a specialist to give you advice about diet and food but this shouldn’t be the only treatment you’re offered. You may be prescribed medication for anorexia as a part of your treatment plan. Make sure your doctors tell you about any side effects the medication might cause and make a note of them on your medical records.

Inpatient treatment is offered to patients of anorexia if your physical health is very poor or your team think that you might be at risk of harming yourself in some way. If you’re in outpatient treatment and have either not improved or your illness is getting worse, inpatient care may also be recommended. Inpatient treatment is likely to be located further away from your home than outpatient treatment but it should be within reasonable travelling distance.

Treatment for bulimia
Self-help may be recommended by your GP as a first step on the road to your recovery. This might mean that you’re recommended books and you may like to ask for support from your primary care team to follow this course. Beat has a section on self help detailing online support and books reviewed by staff members and volunteers, do take a look to see if you find any useful.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often offered to those who do not find self-help treatment works for them. Treatment should comprise of up to 20 sessions and last for around four or five months. The other psychological treatment recommended in the NICE guidelines is interpersonal therapy (IPT) which should follow CBT if unsuccessful or you would prefer to follow this line of treatment.

Medication can be offered alongside a programme of self-help or talking therapies. They can help you to reduce the number of times you are bingeing and purging.

In the majority of cases all treatment for bulimia will be as an outpatient but if your physical health is of concern or you are at risk of hurting yourself, inpatient treatment might be suggested.

Treatment for binge eating disorder
Self-help is often the first suggestion for the treatment of binge eating disorder. Your GP might recommend books or self-help courses. Remember that Beat provides self help support too, our Helpline, online support groups, message boards, emotional overeating support groups (online and in your local area) and reviewed books are all there to help you in your recovery journey.

Following self-help and if your binge eating disorder is persistent, psychological treatment might be recommended: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) and modified dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) might be some options that your doctors discuss with you. You should be able to have some input in the treatment path you follow.

Medication is also sometimes recommended as either an alternative or accompaniment to self-help or talking therapies. Similar drugs used to treat depression might be suggested by your doctor. Sometimes this alone can help to reduce the behaviour patterns associated with binge eating disorder.

It is unusual for someone with binge eating disorder to be admitted as an inpatient but you might be asked to attend day services which advise about planning meals and further understanding of diet and nutrition.
eating disorders are treatable conditions and full recovery is possible. The sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. We know at Beat from our daily contact with people affected, they can and do make a full recovery – their lives no longer dominated by a fear of food.

Please visit the BEAT website for more information on eating disorders and support the fantastic, oh so necessary work that they do.

So, this ED Awareness week, open your mind to the topic, allow yourself to be overwhelmed with information and don't pass up any opportunities that'll broaden your mindset. Then, carry the knowledge and skills you have acquired this week with you into the future in order to build a safe community for ED sufferers and to ensure anyone whose path crosses yours knows that you've got their back. It is so easy for us to be ignorant. Its not hard to live in a bubble these days and remain oblivious to the problems those around us are facing but I am strongly encouraging you not to do that. Educating yourself and speaking out is hard work, no one really wants to do it, which is why it is so important that we do. Don't be blind to eating disorders and do not allow the media to convince you that there's only one type. Everyone's relationship with food is different, everyone's eating habits are different, everyone's mind works in a different way, therefore no two eating disorder journeys are comparable. Everybody struggles in a different way but that does not mean we cannot help them all. I feel so strongly about this issue because I understand what its like to not have a healthy relationship with food. I want you to place yourselves in the shoes of an ED sufferer for a moment and imagine the dark place they are in. In all honesty, you probably can't do that, not accurately, but I'm sure that, if the roles were reversed, you'd want someone to offer you a helping hand. ED sufferers, you are strong, brave and we believe in your ability to get better, even if you do not, which is why we have occasions such as Eating Disorder Awareness Week. We want to learn and we want to help so please, let us in. You are not at fault. You are not to blame. You are not your eating disorder and you will go on to live a prosperous, peaceful life if you welcome the support being offered here.

Parents, carers, siblings, friends, relatives...we live in a dangerous society where anyone is vulnerable and susceptible to mental illnesses, so early intervention is key to treating eating disorders and to prevent them from rooting themselves within individuals. If you see the signs, intervene. You cannot deny the problem or else unimaginable ramifications are sure to follow. The longer these issues are left, the worse things become. Lack of intervention causes eating disorders to manifest themselves inside people for years, thus distorting the perceptions people have of themselves, their bodies, their self worth and their future. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call, a text message, a "Hey, are you sure you're okay?" or "I'm worried about you." Don't deprive people of help and do not allow them to deprive themselves of help. These people want safety and safety comes from support, not judgement. Let us encourage non-judgemental discussions about all types of eating disorders until the topic is no longer viewed as taboo. We can all do something to get ED sufferers on the road to recovery as soon as the ugly face of an eating disorder rears its head. This is a battle nobody should face alone and we must all fight it in order to create the best future for coming generations. Eating disorders cause pain that nobody or no BODY should endure. They are diets which, by following, the only thing we lose is people.

Share your ED stories, advice, words of encouragement or things you've done to raise awareness on social media because anyone could see it. #EDAW2017

Help is here. <3

Love, Emily :) xx

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