by Derek Tam, MD/MPH student
Cover Image by user FUNKYAH on Flickr.
Next week is National Eating Disorders Awareness week. Eating disorders (EDs) represent a shockingly common and yet very treatable public health issue. Up to 24 million Americans – regardless of gender – suffer from eating disorders, but only about 10 percent receive treatment1. Because so many people do not receive the treatment they need, spreading awareness about eating disorders is extremely important.
Eating disorders are a public health issue that cannot be ignored; they are not merely extreme forms of dieting, or the result of individual eating habits. Rather, they represent the most deadly of all psychiatric illnesses. Four percent of people with anorexia nervosa and 3.9% with bulimia will die from their condition, according to a rough estimate of ED mortality rates2. Furthermore the mortality rate from EDs is likely underestimated because the causes of death are numerous and may be reported as “heart failure, organ failure, malnutrition, or suicide1.” In the long term, half of people with anorexia nervosa will recover, about 20% continue to experience issues with food, and about 20% die due to eventual medical or psychological complications3.”
That EDs are not serious health conditions is only one falsehood associated with those conditions. Others include:
- The myth that people “choose” to have an eating disorder (they don’t);
- That men don’t get eating disorders (they do, and many are likely undiagnosed because of this myth);
- That eating disorders develop because of a person’s vanity (while societal standards of attractiveness contribute, “Eating disorders are usually related to emotional issues such as control and low self-esteem and often exist as part of a ‘dual’ diagnosis of major depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder3”);
- And, possibly the most dangerous myth of all, that recovery from an eating disorder is not possible (so very untrue).
Treatment programs recognize the complex and multi-faceted nature of EDs, and commonly involve a multi-disciplinary team of experts. Many centers have a complete care team located in a single location. At those centers, psychologists, psychiatrists, dietitians, and other specialists can work together to develop a treatment plan individualized for each patient.
The public health-powered solution to the problem of EDs needs to consist first and foremost of small but powerful steps that each individual can take. Be aware of how common EDs are. Realize how media and societal influences affect individual body image, and how they can worsen a developing ED. And finally, know that expressing concern for someone you care about is the mark of a true friend.
How to give or get help:
If you are concerned about a friend who you think may have an eating disorder, talking to them can be the push they need to get help in overcoming their ED. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) has a toolkit of advice (available here) for approaching a friend with your concerns. Their hotline is also available for concerned friends (see the bulleted list below for contact information).
If you are concerned about having an eating disorder yourself, never be afraid to ask for help. There are myriad compassionate and effective treatment programs and methods. The following are options accessible to people in the Chicagoland area who are seeking help with eating disorders:
- Northwestern offers its students counseling as well as guidance in finding external treatment programs through its Counseling and Psychological Services; click here or call 847.491.2151
- Insight Behavioral Health Centers has multiple locations in and around Chicago, offering both outpatient and residential treatment programs for eating disorders, as well as treatment for anxiety disorders and other needs. Visit their website here or call 312.540.9955
- The ANAD national hotline is available 9am-5pm (Central time) Monday through Friday by calling (630) 577-1330, or send a message to email@example.com.
- Many other treatment options and locations can be found at the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center’s online directory.
 National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders [Internet]. Eating Disorder Statistics. Accessed 13 Feb 2014. Available at: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
 Crow, S.J., Peterson, C.B., Swanson, S.A., Raymond, N.C., Specker, S., Eckert, E.D., Mitchell, J.E. (2009) Increased mortality in bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 1342-1346.
 National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA Toolkit for Educators. Available online at: http://nedawareness.org/sites/default/files/NEDAwareness_EducatorToolkit.pdf