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Digging Deep: What We Often Miss about Eating Disorders

We often skim the surface of eating disorders–we take them at face value for what we can see. We notice the lack of food or the abundance of it, the waxing and the waning of the individual, but too often we forget that nestled underneath is a serious mental health disorder with complex causes. We don’t stretch to see a person carrying the weight of a family’s dysfunction or a past trauma that still accompanies them. Instead, some remark, “Why don’t you just eat?”

Eating disorders are far more complex than we give them credit for and they often have troubled companions like anxiety, substance use, and depression. Fifty to 75 percent of those with an eating disorder suffer from major depressive disorder, and 50% are also abusing drugs or alcohol. It may not come as a surprise that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder, but it’s not just the physical ramifications of the disease that are the cause.

The physical consequences of anorexia nervosa can include an abnormally slow heart rate, bone density loss, severe dehydration and overall weakness. These are serious and can result in death, but suicide is actually the leading cause of death for those with this disorder. Individuals with anorexia are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.

This week (February 22-28) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time devoted to raising awareness and bringing attention to a critical but often overlooked mental health disorder that affects 30 million Americans. Twenty million women and 10 million men will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Research shows that 35% of normal dieters progress to pathological dieting and of those, 20 -25% develop partial or full eating disorders.

This week, help us raise awareness for this important cause. As with most illnesses, early intervention and detection are the keys to recovery. Anonymous online screenings for eating disorders are available to the public at Online screenings are a great first step toward treatment. They offer a confidential way for individuals to learn if they – or a friend or family member – has the signs or symptoms of an eating disorder, and connects them to local resources for further information and help. Help us give hope to the millions of Americans struggling, let them know there is life after an eating disorder.