An estimated 30 million people in the US struggle with eating disorders. Eating disorders – including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) – have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, but only 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder will receive treatment. It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and, whether you realize it or not, it’s almost certain you know someone who struggles with an eating disorder.
One of the challenges associated with eating disorder awareness is the “stereotypical patient” – or, the idea that only “certain types of people” can have eating disorders. Most people think they can identify someone with an eating disorder based solely on their appearance. The stereotypical eating disorder patient is upper-middle class, white, presents female, and is clearly underweight. Here’s the thing: eating disorders do not discriminate between class, race, sexual orientation, gender, sex, weight or age. While teenage girls are disproportionately affected, males make up 10-15% of those with eating disorders. Additionally, the rate of eating disorders is distributed fairly evenly across race. By maintaining narrow and misinformed conceptions of what an eating disorder patient could/should look like, we lose opportunities treat all of those in need.
Many do not realize that eating disorders are medically classified as mental illnesses, rather than physical ailments. Like many other mental illnesses, scientists and doctors have yet to identify one single contributing causal factor. Rather, experts have identified a wide variety of potential causes. What causes an eating disorder varies from person to person, but genetics, low self-esteem, coping mechanisms for trauma, a need for control, and social pressure have all been cited as possible contributing factors. Additionally, eating disorders often intersect with other mental illnesses, most frequently depression and anxiety disorders. Nearly half of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression, and many of those who lose their life while suffering from an eating disorder die by suicide.
The true benefit in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week does not lie in memorizing these statistics and telling them to everyone you know. Rather, the purpose is to become more aware of those around you and any struggles they may have with eating disorders, even if they do not fit the typical stereotype. By raising awareness about the diverse group of people at risk for eating disorders, we can help ensure that more people are able to access the help they need.
If you think someone you love might have an eating disorder, speak up. It can be a difficult topic to discuss, but there are a wide variety of resources and tips available for free online to help you get started. If you are one of the 30 million people in the US who is struggling with an eating disorder, know you are not alone. Consider seeking treatment, joining a support group, or talking about your concerns with your loved ones.