“I couldn’t live with it, but I couldn’t figure out how to live without it. Please, please give recovery a try.” These were words that were read aloud to a crowd of mourners, including myself, on a brisk October afternoon. It was one final message in a moment of desperation from my friend Emily, who committed suicide in 2011 after struggling with an eating disorder for many years.
Emily is an example that highlights this tragic reality: according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2012), eating disorders are the most fatal mental illnesses. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states that in the United States alone, more than 20 million women and 10 million men have suffered from eating disorders that are clinically significant.
Unfortunately, these aren’t the statistics and realities that are often highlighted in news coverage of eating disorders. If one were to do a Google news search of the topic “eating disorders,” the top responses would be articles that relate to eating disorders in pop culture and Hollywood, i.e., Ke$ha’s recent admission of her battle with an eating disorder. While it is commendable that these celebrity figures are able to shed light on this deadly disease, it can often give the reader a more narrow perspective on the realities of eating disorders. The media focus on celebrities and their struggles with eating disorders often portray eating disorders as illnesses that are suffered by the “rich, white girl”. Think Nicole Richie, Mary-Kate Olsen, Lady Gaga, and Demi Lovato, to name some recent names that have been associated with eating disorders.
So, what’s the problem with this? The focus on celebrities inaccurately represents sufferers of eating disorders. Eating disorders do not discriminate. According to NEDA, the prevalence of eating disorders is similar among Non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians in the U.S.; with the exception that anorexia nervosa is more common among Non-Hispanic Whites (Hudson et al., 2007; Wade et al., 2011). Additionally, males account for an estimated 5-15% of patients with anorexia or bulimia and 35% of those with binge-eating disorder.
When we read about celebrity struggles, we read about their stints in upscale rehabilitation facilities. What we don’t read about are the insurance battles that plague so many of those who fight to get proper coverage for treatment. In a New York Times article (2011) that focused on this issue, it is explained that “Residential treatment can cost from hundreds of dollars to well over $1,000 a day, and even though a daily rate is generally lower than a hospital’s, patients often stay much longer — for weeks or months. Insurers also say that few standards exist for these types of centers.”
Additionally, there isn’t a lot of explanation to the underlying psychological factors, including trauma and other co-existing mental illnesses, or the understanding that the illness is a bio psychosocial one. Instead, people are compelled to put a face on the disease, which is often one of an emaciated celebrity. Again, this isn’t always an accurate portrayal of eating disorders.
In order to effectively increase awareness and move forward in efforts to lower the fatal statistics, the public needs to be properly educated on symptom recognition. Eating disorders can affect anyone, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can increase awareness and advocacy, and thus help decrease the number of people who suffer from them.