National Eating Disorders Awareness Week grants us all a unique opportunity to increase awareness of a nationwide issue that is often misunderstood and surrounded by misconceptions. According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, research indicates at least 30 million Americans of all ages and genders will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime.
Eating disorders are common, highly distressing and dangerous illnesses that affect individuals in a variety of ways. They can involve how little or how much a person eats and can be accompanied by intrusive thoughts and behaviors, often in relation to food and body image. Eating disorders should be taken seriously and treated professionally just like any other physical or mental illness, especially as eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
“Estimates say that every 62 minutes at least one person dies from an eating disorder; that’s 23 people a day,” Chief Strategy Officer of The Emily Program, Jillian Lampert, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., L.D., F.A.E.D. said. “Eating disorders are real, serious and treatable. They’re not fluffy or some illness of vanity; they’re brain-based illnesses that do not discriminate. However, there’s a lot of hope and reason to be optimistic.”
The Emily Program is designed for people with eating disorders, by people with eating disorders. It is the fifth largest eating disorder program in the country and one of the most comprehensive, as they offer services ranging from outpatient care, 1:1 sessions with a dietitian and therapist, to 24-hour care and residential treatment. There are 15, soon to be 16, different locations across the country. The Emily Program treats people across the range of eating disorder diagnoses, all ages and all genders.
Along with a variety of clinical and professional services, The Emily Program puts a large focus on the voices of their clients. People experiencing an eating disorder often feel isolated or like they are battling alone. The Emily Program encourages individuals to share their stories to let people know they are not alone.
“We want people to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are going through it or have gone through it,” Lampert said. “Their voices and stories are incredibly important, and we work to wrap those voices into every decision we make.”
Addressing the misconceptions
Through years of service and experience, Lampert has seen firsthand how impactful and debilitating eating disorders can be. She has also witnessed the vast amount of misconceptions that accompany them.
“Sometimes people think that eating disorders impact only young, upper-middle class females who are thin,” Lampert said. “This is just simply not true. I can’t overemphasize that enough: It’s not just young people or females who have eating disorders.”
There is also a misconception that eating disorders are just about losing weight or looking a certain way. However, anyone of any size or shape, race, age and gender can have an eating disorder. You can’t tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder just by looking at them.
The belief that individuals choose to have eating disorders is another impression Lampert points out to be false. Eating disorders have both physical health and mental health components. They are described as bio-psycho-social, brain-based illnesses, typically prompted by the interplay of genetics, biology, and the environment. For example, people who have more impulsive or risk-taking behaviors or who are more persistent and high achieving may be at higher risk and much more likely to experience an eating disorder than someone without those temperament traits. It’s also not uncommon for eating disorders to co-occur with anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder.
“It is believed that eating disorders impact the same part of the brain as anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder, so it makes sense that they often go along together,” Lampert said. “A lot of the symptoms crossover because they’re brain-based illnesses.”
The challenges in seeking help
Often times the biggest obstacle when seeking treatment for an eating disorder is making the first phone call to seek help. Even if someone has decided to get treatment, it can be extremely difficult to pick up the phone and make that initial connection to admit help is needed. Lampert said the biggest encouragement is for people to make the phone call, because the longer someone waits to get help, the more challenging the recovery can become.
Other challenges might be related to insurance coverage, as some insurance providers do not cover all of the necessary services. Giving themselves enough time to actually complete the treatment is another common obstacle. There are a variety of treatment levels, some requiring more time than others, which poses a challenge of commitment for many people.
“You’re either doing a part-time job with outpatient, a more rigorous, nearly full-time job with intensive therapy, or you’re all in with 24-hour treatment and moving somewhere else for a while,” Lampert said. “Regardless, it can really take a significant amount of time. This often results in people dealing with barriers to being able to engage with adequate treatment. But these illnesses are fierce and relentless–we should treat them like we treat other illnesses that require treatment and help people to overcome barriers to care.”
Lampert also noted that once an individual begins treatment, recovery is not always linear. Relapse in eating disorder recovery is not uncommon and should not discourage the individual or their loved ones. If relapse takes place, it is vital that the individual tells someone right away and is honest about their experience.
“Eating disorders don’t happen overnight and they don’t go away overnight,” Lampert said. “Recovery takes practice, patience and finding a way to live and work with yourself in a way you maybe haven’t done before.”
Showing and finding support
If a loved one or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or presenting like symptoms, The Emily Program encourages people to arm themselves with information including what to say, what not to say, how to help and be supportive. Strong self-care is also crucial for people supporting someone with an eating disorder. It goes back to the idea that you put on your own oxygen mask on first in the event of an emergency on a plane before assisting others. You can only be a good support system if you are feeling strong yourself. Although openly discussing struggles and concerns is encouraged, it is important to have other things to talk about with the individual as well.
“We don’t want everything in their lives to be about this eating disorder,” Lampert said. “Take care of yourself, take care of your child, but go out and have fun. Live your life and encourage them to live theirs too.”
People often ask what they should say when someone initially comes to them with an eating disorder problem or a relapse experience. The answer is you should ask them! Lampert suggested that you explain that it is hard for you to know what to say and that you do not want to say they wrong thing when they are struggling. Ask for suggestions on what they would prefer you say and do. When addressing your concern to someone, be mindful of the language you use.
“When expressing concern, it’s best to use I statements,” Lampert said, “Express what you are observing, what you are concerned about, and avoid making any accusations.”
In fact, the words we choose can have a major impact on the way we perceive ourselves and each other. When we haven’t seen someone in a while, we tend to start the conversation by commenting on how they look, “I haven’t seen you in so long, you look great!” What we really probably mean is that it’s so good to see you, but it’s not always received that way. By changing how we approach a conversation, it takes the focus off of the physical body and on to the person.
“It starts by changing our language around food and body toward more emotional language,” Lampert said. “This would not only take the focus off of the way we look, but also help people connect emotionally in the way I think so many people want to.”
If you are experiencing an eating disorder or eating disorder-like symptoms, please do not hesitate to seek help. Whether you tell someone you trust like a friend, or a you confide in a professional, reaching out for guidance is the first and arguably most important step. Rely on people who support you and people who make you feel safe. Contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline or search for a provider at findedhelp.com for support, treatment options and more resources.
Making the week count
For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, The Emily Program participated in the National Eating NEDA Walk at the Mall of America in Minnesota. The walk aims to raise awareness, spread hope and save lives. The day featured a variety of speakers, including Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA. For the remainder of the week, The Emily Program is sponsoring speaking and collaboration events across their communities.
Although National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a great time to start discussions, ask questions and support each other, it’s important to keep the conversations going all year long. Eating disorders can be debilitating and painful, but as Lampert said: There is a lot of reason to be optimistic. It starts by educating ourselves, being intentional of our words and showing support to those in need.
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