If physical diseases were treated like mental illness…
Ok, maybe this picture is slightly exaggerated, but its point still holds true: people just don’t take mental illness seriously. Diagnoses of eating disorders, OCD, anxiety disorder, depression, etc. are met with ridiculous accusations of guilt, shame, and comments just like in the picture above. This topic really gets me fired up, and one of the main reasons I am pursuing an education in psychology is so that I can put an end to the misguided, misinformed stigma that engrosses mental illness and its sufferers. I’ve done some research on the biology behind eating disorders, and here is some of what I’ve found.
First of all, anorexia, bulimia, and BED are not new diseases. Many people hold on to the false notion that eating disorders are a result of our current weight-obsessed culture, but the truth is that documentation of eating disorders dates all the way back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Initial medical reports refer to a “wasting disease of nervous origins,” and it is believed that well known historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine of Siena, and famous composer, George Frideric Handel, suffered from various eating disorders. In 1873, the term anorexia nervosa was established, and the disease became recognized as a legitimate medical condition.
So what’s the point of all that? Well, if anorexia isn’t a new thing, but in fact something that occurred in times long before runway models, magazines, and barbie dolls, how can one simply attribute eating disorders to cultural ideals?
To say that society is responsible for eating disorders is an illogical, uneducated fallacy.
I’m not denying the damaging effects of society’s obsession with thinness. I think it’s an important issue, and one that I am also very passionate about. But how is it that millions of young people grow up exposed to the same media, magazines, and models, yet only 5% are affected by eating disorders? How can two sisters grow up in the same environment, yet only one develops anorexia? To blame society “perpetuates the myth that eating disorders are a choice, that they are not that serious, and that if sufferers weren’t so vain, they wouldn’t suffer. Eating disorders are real illnesses that kill up to one in five chronic sufferers. The sooner we can remove the focus on the media, the sooner we can put our energies towards developing more effective treatments” (Carrie Arnold).
Modern culture isn’t the only eating-disorder-scapegoat. Many (I’d say the majority) of psychiatrists and clinicians claim that eating disorders stem from traumatizing events in a person’s life such as sexual abuse, death, or dysfunctional family life. Dr. Hilde Bruch was a psychologist in the 1930’s who referred to patients as “individuals who misuse the eating function in their efforts to solve or camouflage the problems of living that to them otherwise appear insoluble.” This idea that eating disorders are a coping mechanism to satisfy a need for control has stuck to professional discussions and treatment plans for nearly a century, and it has had a detrimental effect on patients.
Obviously, one cannot ignore a patient’s history of stress and emotions. A great deal of healing has to take place when recovering from an eating disorder, and dealing with past trauma is part of that healing. But it is enormously frustrating to see therapists attempting to “talk” a patient out of their illness or determine the “root” in order to break them of their disease.
In my own recovery, I had a therapist and a nutritionist who spent session after session trying to find the cause of my eating disorder. I was questioned endlessly about possible “roots”; were my parents too controlling? was I afraid of growing up? why did I need to control my weight?
Blah. blah. blah. Do you really think that I starved myself because I was bitter towards my parents? Would I choose to lose my hair and freeze all the time because I was afraid of growing up? Would I risk osteoporosis and heart problems because I wanted to control something?
Do one in five sufferers choose to die rather than face the supposed “cause” of their sickness?
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a video of Joyce Meyer. This friend is in recovery from anorexia and bulimia that she has struggled with for almost six years, and what Meyer said infuriated both of us: “In some private, affluent schools, this anorexia thing is an absolute epidemic because many of these children come from very affluent families, who instead of taking time to love their children and investing in their lives, they buy them everything they want.”
And up goes my blood pressure.
It’s absurd. I have the most wonderful parents on earth. I’ve never considered them to be controlling. I’ve never been abused in any way. I was never bullied. My mom never dieted or discussed weight or calories in our home. Yet…I was anorexic.
I’m not saying that emotional and environmental factors aren’t important in eating disorder diagnosis and recovery, but I am saying that it’s time to change the way we look at and talk about mental illness. It’s time to stop blaming society, blaming families, and blaming the patients themselves. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that they just need to try harder. You wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes that their disease is a result of something their parents did wrong. Why should someone with a legitimate, biological, genetic disorder of the brain be treated any differently?