When people hear the word ‘anorexic’, they immediately think of extreme dieting, binging and purging and unfortunately, in most cases, they often associate the disorder with teenage girls. The two words that do not come to mind however, are ‘mental health’. Over half of my school friends have suffered, or are still suffering from anorexia and for a long time I could not get my head around why eating a simple salad was such a monumental problem. To me, the solution used to seem so straightforward and unproblematic; just eat.
Regrettably, research into this area remains limited, but many doctors warn that eating disorders share certain characteristics with mental health conditions such as depression and serious anxiety. Those who suffer from anorexia are plagued by an intense fear of being overweight and for many, their self-worth increases as their weight decreases. In some cases, those with anorexia react poorly to stress, others tightly restrain their behaviour in public and some develop obsessive compulsive disorder. Friends of mine even began to personify anorexia and truly believed that they could not eat because anorexia was at their side telling them not to. This highlights the difficultly with studying this area. The responses required to overcome disorders like anorexia and bulimia are often unique to each person, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact psychological cause.
Although effective treatments are currently held back by inadequate research, we should be aware that there are many simple, everyday ways to give a helping hand to someone who is suffering. It is crucial that we dispel the myth that eating disorders only effect teenage girls. Anorexia effects 1.6 million people in the UK alone, impacting on both young people and adults, male and female. Male anorexia remains somewhat of a taboo, but 10 per cent of those affected are male and ignoring this problem will only make boys more vulnerable. My experiences highlighted that it was not only those who were ill that were in denial about having a life-threatening problem, but in many cases, friends, parents and teachers were also choosing to pretend that the issue did not exist. ‘BEAT’ stresses that it is crucial that friends intervene early on, no matter how embarrassed you are, rather than waiting for the situation to become more serious. Presuming it is just a phase is a dangerous assumption to make and telling a friend ‘it will pass’ is an utter waste of time.
This is the obstacle that must be overcome. It is still the case that eating disorders are seen as a temporary weakness, and are often not categorised as a mental health concern. Eating disorders are habitually explained by pressures from the media and fashion industries creating an unrealistic image of the ‘perfect body’. We have developed a culture that enjoys exposing the imperfections of others and media behaviour reinforces the message that thinness equates to beauty. Although this is clearly a serious issue, emphasis on these environmental factors means that the psychological causes of anorexia are often overlooked, arguably creating the impression that eating disorders are not as troubling or disturbing as other mental illnesses. The fact is that anorexia nervosa is one of the leading causes of mental health related deaths, and it is essential that society recognises the very real danger surrounding eating disorders.