It feels like every year, we become more and more comfortable with talking about mental illness — and that’s really important. The stigma around mental illness is not only unhelpful and cruel, but also dangerous, both for people who suffer from mental illness and those who don’t.
In contrast to just 10 years ago, the dialogue about mental illness now exists in the mainstream. While some are still stigmatized and misunderstood, it feels like the vast majority of young people are aware of depression and anxiety, what those conditions mean and how brutal they can be. The absence of blame on people who suffer from the mental illnesses in these conversations is so crucial.
But we still have a long way to go, and this week’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is a stark reminder of that. From Feb. 24 to March 1, the campaign is designated as a week for raising awareness about eating disorders. For more background on this week, you can check out the NEDA’s website or The Triangle’s article on the topic published last week.
Eating disorders are a highly misunderstood, stigmatized and easily dismissed mental illness in the public eye. The conversation about eating disorders really began after the death of singer Karen Carpenter in 1983, due to a heart attack brought on by complications from anorexia nervosa. In this editorial, we want to discuss two essential points. First, explain what eating disorders actually are and how they develop and manifest. And second, how you can change some minors behaviors to avoid vilifying and shaming people who suffer from them.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S., and every 62 minutes, someone dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. This issue is clearly a widespread one.
There’s a pervasive myth that only models are anorexic. That they choose not to eat in order to look slim. Not only is that untrue but even if they were, that’s not something to mock. Living with an eating disorder is extremely difficult. It’s inescapable. You need to eat to survive, yet your body and brain refuse to let you do that. Many people have difficult relationships with food, but eating disorders are incredibly powerful and overwhelming. You can see yourself wilting away while you lose energy and your every thought is overwritten by thoughts of hunger, pain and self-loathing.
Countless athletes suffer from eating disorders and are just as trapped as anyone else, despite the fact that they consistently exercise. Studies done by the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences indicated that 47 percent of female athletes in sports that “emphasized leanness” had clinically diagnosed eating disorders and that 21 percent of women who weren’t elite athletes also did.
Gender also plays a big role in the effects of eating disorders. According to the NEDA website, an estimated 10 million men will deal with an eating disorder at some point in their lives, but men in the U.S. are less likely to report it than the 20 million estimated women with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are often rooted in body image problems and go hand in hand with body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. But they are, at their core, a means of self-harm, and in the same way that other forms of self-harm shouldn’t be mocked or dismissed, neither should an eating disorder. If you think there’s a chance you may be dealing with an eating disorder, we unfortunately don’t have all of the answers for you, but it’s important to remember that you are not a bad person and you should never feel ashamed for your affliction. There are resources at the Counseling Center and outside of Drexel that can be of great help.
Which leads into what people without eating disorders can do in honor of this week. Creating a space among your friends where they can talk about their issues is always important. It’s so important to avoid forcing your friends to eat and shaming them or making little comments about their body or dietary habits. Someone else’s body is none of your business. Let them live, and if you are concerned about their health, discuss that with them instead of attacking them. If you notice someone in your life has lost a significant amount of weight and you know they haven’t been trying to, approach them with caution. Don’t just say, “You lost so much weight! You look so great now.” You may think you’re helping, but you are only exacerbating their problems.
Everyone is different, and there is obviously a variety of ways people experience disorders, as well as multiple kinds of eating disorders. But if you’re reading this, thank you and this week is a great time to set aside a little bit of time to learn more about eating disorders and how to help people you think may be dealing with one.