Eating disorders go largely noticed as serious mental illnesses

Recently, many individuals have begun working to remove the stigma surrounding mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. This has given many other individuals the courage to open up about their experiences in a way they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past. But, one type of mental illness remains almost undiscussed: eating disorders.

Due to this lack of discussion, eating disorders can seem more distant and uncommon than other mental illnesses. However, this certainly isn’t the case; 10-15% of Americans struggle with an eating disorder, 90% of those being female and 10% of those being male. For the past four years, junior Morgan Johnson* has struggled with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by restriction of food and obsession with body weight.

“It was mostly about being in control for me,” Johnson said. “The media definitely played a part, but it was more about the sense of control I got from restricting.”

For nearly three years, Johnson’s disorder went unnoticed by friends and family members. This may be partially due to the fact that most individuals with eating disorders tend to hide their symptoms and isolate themselves from situations where eating is necessary. It may also be partially due to the fact that most people aren’t sure how to deal with a friend’s eating disorder. In some cases, individuals unintentionally allow their friends’ eating disorders to fly under the radar, mistaking them for crash diets. In other cases, individuals are unsure about whether to approach their friend or tell an adult. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), while approaching a friend is a good step, if an individual is unsure where to go from there, recommending they speak to an adult is always a safe choice.

“It’s probably best to have a trusted resource help,” school psychologist Kurt Wagner said. “It can be unhealthy to take on trying to help someone without any help as eating disorders typically require professional treatment.”

Before her sophomore year, Johnson’s eating disorder was something that she tried to hide. She rarely discussed it with her teachers or other adults in her life. An experience in her sophomore health class changed that.

After Johnson turned in a three-day food tracking assignment, health teacher Michael Naughton approached her about her eating habits. After she confirmed that she had accurately completed the assignment, he was concerned and began regularly meeting with her to talk about her disorder. According to Johnson, this helped her to open up to a few of her other teachers, which was helpful through her recovery process.

“When a teacher notices that something is wrong, it’s their responsibility to bring it up to the student, their parents, their counselor or a school psychologist,” Naughton said. “If you notice something, you need to mention it before it reaches a point where it’s too late.”

While Johnson began restricting during seventh grade, it wasn’t until the summer before her junior year that she was admitted into an outpatient program to focus on her recovery. There, she connected with others who experienced similar issues. This experience eliminated a few of her previous misconceptions about the type of person who could have an eating disorder.

“When I was going through treatment, I met a lot of people who I wouldn’t have expected to have an eating disorder,” Johnson said. “There were girls who weren’t thin, girls from different backgrounds and sometimes even guys.”

Since eating disorders are less widely discussed than some other mental illnesses, many misconceptions exist surrounding the topic. One particularly common misconception is that they’re solely based on body image, or a person’s perception of their body. While individuals with eating disorders often have distorted body images, this isn’t necessarily the cause of their unhealthy relationships with food.

“Eating disorders are mental disorders,” Naughton said. “There is usually a deeper issue or another mental disorder going on and it manifests as an obsession with food.”

In an age where social media is constant, it is natural for teenagers to turn to social media for models and examples. On social media websites such as Instagram, various profiles attempt to offer this needed guidance, including profiles promoting body positivity and recovery.

Although some pages offer healthy advice, social media is a double-edged sword. Other pages promote unhealthy behaviors such as restriction and excessive exercise. These accounts are usually run by individuals struggling with eating disorders. While they are against Instagram guidelines, they are so common that it’s a struggle to remove them from the website; even when they’re removed, it’s easy for individuals to recreate the pages and start over.

“I used to run a pro-ana page, which was really bad,” Johnson said. “Now, I have a recovery page. Looking at recovery pages helps me stay motivated through the process.”

Like many other mental and physical disorders, when recovering from an eating disorder, there is no finish line. For most individuals, including Johnson, recovery is an ongoing battle. Although it gets easier over time, relapses are always possible.

“Sometimes, I still wish that I was thinner and don’t want to eat,” Johnson said. “Other days, I feel motivated and glad to be healthy enough to do sports.”

In the process of recovery, it is always helpful to have a support system. Approaching a friend or trusted adult is often the first step in building this system. For those concerned they may have an eating disorder, although it can be scary to reach out, counselors and school psychologists are equipped to deal with eating disorders and related issues.

“[If you’re experiencing an eating disorder], ask for help,” Wagner said. “We can help start the conversation to get the help you or a friend may need.”

According to NEDA, opening up the conversation is an important step towards removing the stigma around eating disorders. Like any other mental illness, hearing others experiences makes it easier for an individual to speak up about their own.

“A lot of the time, when someone is struggling with an eating disorder, they think that no one else would understand it,” Naughton said. “If I could say one thing to someone who is struggling, it’s this: you are not alone.”