Eating Disorder Misconceptions

Misinformation about eating disorders can hinder help-seeking.

Posted Feb 19, 2016

Eating disorders are a common, but often misunderstood, mental illness. In the United States, 30 million people will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. However, because of the stigma and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders and mental health, only one in ten will seek treatment. Despite these low numbers, treatment for eating disorders is effective with subsequent recovery. Correcting misconceptions about these illnesses is critical to increasing awareness leading to a rise in treatment rates.

Eating disorders are often incorrectly believed to be an obsession with eating or dieting, when in fact; they are serious mental health disorders that require treatment. Recent research has revealed that there are physiological differences in the brains of individuals with eating disorders. These differences can cause an increase in anxiety and sensitivity. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and often co-occur with other illnesses. Approximately 50-75 percent of eating disorder patients suffer from depression.

The idea that eating disorders are rare is another myth. In adolescent girls, eating disorders represent the third most common chronic illness (after asthma and obesity). Although eating disorders are less common among adults, they can easily persist past the teenage years. In fact, recent studies have indicated a rise in eating disorders in women over 40. Because of this, early intervention is important.

Parents, classmates, and teachers are in a crucial position to notice the first symptoms. The changes that may indicate the onset of an eating disorder are not always obvious. Those who struggle with bulimia or binge-eating disorder, for example, will not necessarily be underweight. Parents and friends may instead notice a depressed mood or withdrawal from things once enjoyed. Obsessive exercise habits, frequent trips to the bathroom following meals, or physical complaints including dizziness, headaches, and constipation can also be signs.

If a parent or friend is concerned about a loved one, it is important to take action. Online eating disorder screenings are an effective first step toward treatment. Screenings consist of a series of questions designed to indicate whether symptoms of an eating disorder are present. After completing the anonymous screening, participants receive immediate, confidential feedback and referral information to local resources for further information or treatment. The important point is to follow-up a screening with an evaluation and examination by a health care professional.

Screening for Mental Health, Inc., the pioneer in large-scale mental health screenings for the public, is urging everyone to learn the signs and symptoms of eating disorders during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, February 21-27. The week serves as the annual campaign to bring attention to the critical needs of people with eating disorders and their families. As part of the Awareness Week, Screening for Mental Health in partnership with the National Eating Disorder Association has provided anonymous eating disorder screenings at MyBodyScreening.org.

Eating disorder screenings are able to increase awareness, correct misconceptions, and connect those struggling with the treatment they need. To help the millions affected by eating disorders, share MyBodyScreening.org with friends and family during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

Douglas Jacobs M.D., a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, is Founder and Medical Director of Screening for Mental Health, Inc.

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