I have had the honour of helping to facilitate groups for university women with eating disorders and eating issues for the past 4 years.
Each week, for a six-week period, we come together to discuss our stories; detailing our successes, our challenges, our joys, and our heartbreak. For a short moment in time we offer each other a small window into each others’ lives, a glimpse into our personal struggles with an all-encompassing and misunderstood illness. We offer each other more than an ear – the collective provides support, understanding, and encouragement. We unite in our common experiences.
And while facilitating such a group is, by far, one of the greatest roles and most fulfilling experiences I have ever been fortunate to have, the sixth and final session is always difficult. Sure, I’m sad to say goodbye; connecting with a group full of intelligent, articulate, and unquestionably strong women creates a quick, palpable bond. However, the reality of what the end of our group means is much more heart-rending.
We walk out of the safety of our group into a world that is not as open, not as accepting, not as kind. We enter into a society that doesn’t understand, and doesn’t seem to want to take the time to.
We may want to turn to the ones we love – the ones who are supposed to understand us the best – for support as we attempt to battle this seemingly relentless disease. We want a physician to help us make sense of it, and tell us how to fight back. We want our friends to hug us on the bad days, celebrate with us on the good days, cry with us when crying is all we can hope to do.
But for some of us, we may feel we have no one we can turn to. We may feel the type of support we want is just not there. For others, we may be too afraid to talk.
As omnipresent as they are, affecting about 20 million of us and an additional 10 million men, and despite the fact that rates have been rising since the 1950’s, eating disorders are still an unspeakable illness.
It is this very absence of conversation that has resulted in the societal misconstructions and lack of understanding that is far too often associated with eating disorders. Sure, eating disorders are just as susceptible to the usual stigma that accompanies mental health concerns. But what sets eating disorders apart from other mental illnesses is that they are perceived by many to be the result of choice. A volition, of sorts, in human suffering.
The world around us continues to blame, shame, discriminate, doubt, and dismiss us. For some, limiting the harmful words, avoiding the endless explanations, and evading the constant judgment is all-to important. Concealing the illness may seem necessary.
But staying quiet and limiting help has terrifying consequences. Eating disorders and issues, currently divided into Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified are serious mental illnesses that can significantly impact the long-term health and well being of those who struggle. They are detrimental to all facets of life; they fracture relationships, damage families, destroy bodies, impair dreams, and steal souls. Early identification and intervention are vital to the promotion of health; concealing an eating disorder and limiting help seeking can worsen symptoms and complicate recovery.
This isn’t just a public health concern, it’s a human rights concern. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions, with it being the third most common chronic illness among young women. Anorexia Nervosa will, over the course of the illness, kill one in ten women struggling with the disease. We take to the streets to speak against violence, inequality, and reproductive justice, so why not because of this? Is the marginalization these women face in our communities, because of a disease, not deserving of public action?
Eating Disorder Awareness Week is upon us; in Canada: February 3rd – 9th, in the United Kingdom: February 11th – 17th, and in the United States: February 24th – March 2nd. This week is about starting the conversation; promoting awareness and encouraging education. Perhaps more importantly, this week provides a voice for the millions who struggle, and the multitude who do so in silence.
Please, take this week to educate yourself, inform others, and start the conversation. Remind the silent millions that they aren’t so alone and help make it safer for them to gain their own voice.