Eating disorders stigma

Being a psychologist and the sort of person who walks along side her friends when they are suffering, I have a fairly good idea of which friends have experienced what mental health difficulties. It is not uncommon for a friend to say “my moods a bit low right now” or “I am having panic attacks again”. This is positive; through reaching out people feel less isolated, and are able to get the right support early.

Given that approximately 9% of Australians (NEDC) are estimated to experience an eating disorder, it is not surprising that I also have friends who have experienced anorexia, bulimia, or difficulties with binge- or comfort-eating. Yet it is very rare for these friends to ever acknowledge when their eating disordered mindset or symptoms have reared their heads. These same friends will acknowledge their anxiety, or interpersonal problems. For some reason however, to acknowledge the eating disorder out loud appears to be taboo. In my work clients often tell me that their eating disorder is a shameful secret the have kept for years.

Eating disorders are a severe and persistent mental illness with a strong biological basis. Those experiencing eating disorders often experience significant guilt and shame. They often feel to weak or out of control to break the cycle of symptoms that maintain their eating disorder. These self-stigmatizing emotions and attitudes make it very difficult to ask for help. Unfortunately, as well as battling their own self-criticism, individuals with eating disorders are at times faced with stigmatizing attitudes from others.

Research indicates that friends and family of those with eating disorders often feel confused about why someone so intelligent and considerate could care so much about their physical appearance. It is common for carers to experience frustration that their loved one can’t change the behaviours that are hurting them.

The stigmatizing attitude of self and others has a terrible cost in maintaining the silence, increasing secrecy and shame, and preventing help seeking. This may be even more prominent in men who experience eating disorders as they also perceive that men shouldn’t have these difficulties. Research indicates that the earlier one seeks help for their eating disorder, the better their chances of full recovery. Therefore anything that interferes with help seeking is a serious problem.

Perhaps because most people have experienced days they have “hated their bodies”, and have made an attempt to alter their appearance there is a misconception that individuals with eating disorders are just responding to the same feelings with more extreme behaviours. However, for individuals with eating disorders the distress, anxiety, and magnitude is much greater. It was not long ago however that society had a “harden up” response to depression, and that it was commonly thought that those who were depressed were those who just did not get over a sad day. Attitudes can change.

In Australia the National Eating Disorders Collaboration promotes a “no blame model” to reduce the shame and humiliation associate with eating disorders. If you know someone who is currently suffering be careful about the language you use, and educate yourself and others. Remember this is not a lifestyle choice, this is a serious illness. Use the same compassion as you would to anyone else who was unwell.

If you are currently experiencing an eating disorder, there is a whole community out there ready to support you with empathy and understanding. Educate yourself, remember that while recovery takes time it is possible, and listen to the ever growing number of inspiring recovery stories. When you are ready contact a psychologist or your GP to get the help you need to get well. Sharing is scary, but it is an essential part of recovery, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the support you receive. Your family and friends can be a great asset in your recovery, and time and time again we have witnessed that once the bubble of secrecy is popped recovery begins.

Person Centred Psychology specialises in eating disorders. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.

Tom Morley