It’s Time to Start Treating Eating Disorders like the Public Health Crisis They Are

Claire Mysko, MA

Ten million men and 20 million women will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. These illnesses affect all kinds of people – regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status or background. And despite the fact that these illnesses have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, the majority of those affected will not get the help that they need and many will suffer in silence, often not even realizing that they are struggling with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders, such as bulimia, binge eating disorder and anorexia, have biological, genetic, behavioral and psychological components, yet they continue to be dismissed, trivialized and obscured by stigma and stereotypes. Despite the common trope that eating disorders are choices that can simply be cured by “eating normally,” they are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that patients don’t choose. Several decades of genetic research show that biological factors play a significant role in who develops an eating disorder. A societal factor (like the media-driven thin body ideal) is an example of an environmental trigger that has been linked to increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Environmental factors also include physical illnesses, childhood teasing and bullying, and other life stressors.

These illnesses can lead to heart attack, kidney failure, osteoporosis, electrolyte imbalance, gastric rupture and more, yet eating disorders are often seen as issues of vanity. In fact, the warning signs and symptoms often go undetected for years, even by medical professionals. And it’s no mystery why – 63% of internal medicine residents report less than an hour of lecture time devoted to eating disorders during their training.

It’s also important to note that these illnesses intersect with many other public health issues, including substance use disorders, depression, anxiety and obesity. Did you know:

  • Up to 35% of individuals who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, a rate 11 times greater than the general population.
  • Certain psychiatric disorders, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder, mood disorders, and personality disorders frequently are found among those with eating disorders, with estimates ranging from 42-75%.
  • And though not everyone with binge eating disorder (BED) is medically overweight, up to 25% of people seeking treatment for obesity have BED, and it is recommended that the BED be treated first.

Our work at the National Eating Disorders Association is to spread the message that no one is alone in their struggle and that help is available. As the largest organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders, we strive to shine the spotlight on these illnesses and provide the kind of information and resources that people need to get better.

Through our online screening tool and confidential Helpline, we promote early detection and connect people to treatment options. We partner with Instagram and Facebook on our National Eating Disorders Awareness Week to put these life-saving tools in the palm of people’s hands. Our evidence-based body positivity program helps young people challenge the thin ideal and build self-esteem.

We’re also working to fund eating disorders research so that we can more effectively treat these complex illnesses. And we’re fighting for change at the legislative level with our advocacy efforts, making sure that insurance companies cover eating disorders just as they would physical illnesses – because we know that mental health issues are real and they deserve to be taken seriously.

Eating disorders are a public health crisis that can no longer be ignored. It’s time to start treating eating disorders as the public health crisis that they are. We need more funding for research, adequate coverage from insurance companies, training for medical professionals, public health awareness campaigns and more resources to disseminate educational materials and prevention programs to schools. I hope you'll join us in the fight against eating disorders – together we can save lives.  

Claire Mysko, MA, is Chief Executive Officer at the National Eating Disorders Association.

This blog post is part of a series focusing on different aspects of public health in recognition of Public Health Thank You Day, held each year othe Monday before Thanksgiving. Visit www.publichealththankyouday.org for more information, and join us on social media using the hashtag #PHTYD.

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