Eating disorders are one of the most worrying and fastest growing health issues of our time. The government is so concerned that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) includes recommendations for treating children as young as eight years old.
But why should we care? We need to care because eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or social group. Furthermore they do not just affect one person, they affect entire families, friends, colleagues and communities, through loss of potential and revenue. Eating disorders are a serious mental health illness, responsible for more loss of life than any other type of psychological illness. Around five percent of anorexia nervosa sufferers die as a consequence of their illness.
People suffering from an eating disorder may not always look ill. To the outside world they may even appear highly functioning and successful. If friends or family do raise concerns with regards to appearance/weight loss, these are frequently brushed aside, justified or minimized.
Inside however, the individual is suffering in many ways. Having a food problem- and eating disorders are not just about food- slowly takes over a person’s life. Eventually there is no space for family, friends, school/work, as the sufferer enters into an exclusive and abusive relationship with their illness.
There are many myths surrounding the development of eating disorders, but in reality, it is impossible to isolate one single factor as ‘causing’ the illness. A combination of character, genetics and socio-cultural factors all contribute to one individual being more susceptible to the development of an eating disorder than another. Some of these factors include low self-esteem, family relationships, work or school pressures, the fall-out with friends, the loss of someone special, lack of confidence, sexual or emotional abuse.
During times of stress or trauma, the pre-occupation with food, weight and/or appearance becomes a welcome distraction from painful feelings, emotions and pressures. Being able to control ones food or body provides a sense of power and serves as a coping mechanism for feeling overwhelmed and scared.
Sufferers, as well as their families and friends are often reluctant and afraid to confront the illness and there are long periods of denial before help is sought. Despite increased efforts by charities such as BEAT to raise awareness, eating disorders are still subject to stigma, provoking intense feelings of shame and guilt. Patients and their families may feel they are to blame and hope that by ignoring reality, the problem will go away. But in common with other mental health issues, the longer an eating disorder remains untreated, the worse the long-term complications (including kidney failure, gastrointestinal and fertility problems) and the more difficult it will become to make a positive recovery.
However it is important to stress that with early intervention and the right professional support in place for both the sufferer and their families, a full recovery from any eating disorder is possible.