Myths and dangers of eating disorders

The most deadly mental illness is also the third most common chronic illness in college-aged people.

This illness isn’t depression. It’s not schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This illness is an eating disorder, and it impacts more than 30 million Americans annually, not discriminating for age, race or gender, and only 1 in 10 people suffering seek help.

The mortality rate is 4 percent for anorexia, 3.9 percent for bulimia and 5.2 percent for unspecified eating disorders, according to the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

These conditions are potentially lethal because of the devastating physical impacts of an eating disorder, and because of the enormous stigma surrounding eating disorders preventing sufferers from seeking help or even acknowledging the problem.

College is a common time for eating disorders to occur, said Amy Allison, a counselor with WSU Counseling and Psychological Services who has a special interest in eating disorders. The high-stress environment and the ability to fully control one’s own diet lead to a catalyst situation for an eating disorder to occur.

We as Cougs need to look out for each other, and create a culture that is supportive and nonjudgmental in order to establish an environment that empowers people to seek help without shame.

“People with these conditions need support, not just to be told to eat more or exercise less,” said UREC Director of Programming Joanne Greene, a registered dietician.

The most important thing people can do to do create this positive environment is to learn about the reality of eating disorders. There are many popular myths about eating disorders, and very rarely do these myths match up with the truth. We need to shift the conversation from myth to reality in order to bring about this change.

One hugely prevalent myth is that eating disorders are a choice, Allison said. This is entirely untrue. Eating disorders are often treated in conversation like a bad decision, not a mental illness. They are very difficult or impossible to overcome without professional help. People tend to be frustrated by those who have eating disorders who can’t just make themselves eat a normal diet, Allison said.

“Asking people to stop these behaviors is like asking them to jump out of a plane without a parachute,” Allison said.

This relates to another common myth – that these behaviors are a result of vanity, shallowness and superficiality. The reality is much more complex.

“Eating disorders at the core are a way of coping with significant uncomfortable emotions,” Allison said.

For this reason, it is difficult for people to stop or even recognize the need to seek help.

“An eating disorder can feel like a safety net,” Allison explained. The fear of confronting these uncomfortable emotions can stop people from seeking help, especially in an environment where they feel judged or shamed for their disordered eating.

Eating disorders are often treated in the media as a problem that only impacts young Caucasian women. This is not true – these disorders do not discriminate based on age, race, gender or anything else.

Greene said popular media’s portrayals of men are also extremely unrealistic, leading both genders to strive for a ‘perfect body’ that is nearly impossible to achieve healthily. But men are socially stopped from even considering the possibility of having an eating or exercise disorder, and this prevents them from reaching out for help – or from even knowing they have this condition.

Men account for up to 15 percent of eating disorders, with that number increasing as much as 10 percent for gay men, and it is not unique to a specific skin color, according to the ANAD.

This perception often stops men or people of color from seeking help, Allison said.

The prevalence of these myths is unacceptable. We cannot let mental health struggles end lives because of a culture that is too afraid to talk about it.

If you find yourself with eating habits that are abnormal, I urge you to not be afraid to seek help. Don’t let the media tell you that you can’t have this condition, or that it’s shameful to talk about it and reach out for help. There is nothing shameful about it. Counseling Services on campus is free to students and completely confidential; don’t be afraid to stop by.

If you know someone who struggles with food, be aware of how your actions impact them. Validate their struggles. People tend to get frustrated when their friends with eating struggles cannot make themselves take on a healthier diet. Yes, it is scary and it does make friends feel powerless, but if you feel powerless, just imagine how your friend feels.

Recognize that this is not a choice, and be as supportive as you can. Encourage them to seek help. Especially in college, disordered eating is very easy to hide; so if you see something that concerns you, have a conversation about it. Let’s make it normal to discuss these things, and make it normal to seek treatment.

Don’t ever make anyone feel like they should be ashamed of asking for help.

Unrealistic media portrayals should not be allowed to dictate reality.

This is our town and our campus, and here, we create the reality. We can create a reality that is understanding and supportive of people with eating disorders. We can change this conversation, and turn the culture around.

There is a horrible shame on eating disorders that results in a death toll. Let’s recognize reality and work to eliminate that stigma. By doing so, we could save lives.

Michelle Fredrickson is a senior communication major from Issaquah. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by [email protected] The opinions expressed in this Column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of The Office of Student Media.