February 28, 2013

The Numbers Behind Eating Disorders

Today, let's talk statistics.


About 20 million women in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their life. Of those, about 95% are females between the ages of 12 and 25, and the number of inpatient hospitalizations, meaning treatment for people whose disorders have made them medically unstable or psychologically unable to commit to safety (i.e. suicidality), for people above the age of 35 is on the rise.

What do these numbers mean? They mean that eating disorders aren't going away. They are not limited to White teenagers, and they are not a problem of the rich. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and mental illness knows no boundaries when it comes to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

I often hear a lot of blame from people who don't understand EDs. They say things like, "Why doesn't she just eat a hamburger?" or "They just want attention-- how pathetic!" Statements like these assume that EDs are all about food (they're not) and that it is easy for somebody with an ED to simply alter their behavior and get over it (it's not). For many people, eating disorders signal that the individual is struggling to regulate their emotional experiences in a healthy way. The food becomes the target and a symptom, but to say that it stops there grossly underestimates the complexity of the human experience. The food becomes a symbol, a way of punishing one's self and of numbing out from the world. Too little food? I didn't deserve to eat, anyway. Binge eating to the point of physical discomfort? I needed to comfort myself somehow. Purging afterwards? I didn't deserve that comfort, anyway. (Please note that restricting, binge eating, and purging can mean different things for different people. These are just examples and in no way are meant to represent everybody's experience with an eating disorder.)

I fear that if we don't change the way we talk about eating disorders, obesity, and body image, we are setting ourselves up for a very unhealthy world. I feel horror and sadness when I think that 81% of 10-year-olds fear being fat. Do you know what I feared when I was 10 years old? That I would do something stupid in front of the boy I had a crush on. That my piano teacher would realize I hadn't practiced my piece that week. That recess would be cut short that day. Weight never entered the picture, but sadly, weight is more and more the focus of young people's environments.

Eating disorders are the most deadly mental illness. More people die from anorexia nervosa than any other mental illness. Period. This is a very serious disorder, and we don't benefit from pretending that it's not.

Eating disorders aren't just limited to women, either. Boys and men can develop eating disorders, too, and they most certainly can engage in disordered eating behaviors. We don't tend to talk about them because we assume they are immune to body concerns, but that might just be part of the problem. Our assumptions are wrong, and men suffer at the expense of our silence.

Did you realize that about 40% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies? We tend to view men as being detached and buffered from body criticism, but the truth is that they are facing increasing pressure to be fit, muscular, and rock-solid. Most men just can't naturally attain that ideal. How many men are silently berating themselves for failing to meet that unrealistic standard?

What's even more unsettling for me is that while ten million men in the United States will at some point suffer from an eating disorder, they are far less likely than women to seek treatment-- only one in ten men with an eating disorder will seek treatment.  Even if they do ask for help, they face limited treatment options since most treatment facilities are for women only. While a formal treatment facility isn't a necessary treatment option for everyone with an eating disorder, what are men supposed to do if their illness is severe enough to warrant more intensive care?

The numbers behind eating disorders are scary. These are serious illnesses, and we need to take them seriously. Spread the word. Be informed.

What statistics stand out to you? What do you make of them?