When people think about serious and life-threatening mental health conditions, they often refer to depression and drug or alcohol abuse. Most people can identify a person in their life who has suffered from one or both of these conditions. We all can think of situations where these conditions have led to life-destroying behaviors.
But, did you know that eating disorders are also life threatening? Eating Disorders have the highest death rate of any mental health condition. Approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life.
Even with the highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions, eating disorders often go unrecognized and misdiagnosed. We live in a culture that is very diet focused, and disordered eating is considered normal. In the US alone, the dieting industry brings in more than $20 billion a year through diet programs, books, drugs and weight loss surgeries.
Our culture has a love-hate relationship with food and our bodies. Binge eating disorder is the most common of the eating disorders in the United States. Even though it is the most common, healthcare providers often miss it.
What causes an eating disorder? It’s a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental and temperamental factors. You can’t learn to have an eating disorder, but environmental factors certainly contribute. Individuals who suffer from eating disorders also experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and sometimes drug and alcohol abuse.
The emotional impact of an eating disorder is devastating. The physical consequences are equally destructive. Those who suffer from binge eating disorder often have hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, and other medical conditions associated with obesity.
Anorexia and bulimia nervosa often lead to serious electrolyte imbalances, cardiac and kidney problems, osteoporosis, serious cognitive impairment, and other medical issues related to insufficient nutrition. In fact, one out of every 10 individuals with anorexia nervosa will die from this disease. Approximately half of those die from medical related problems, and the other half through death by suicide.
If you – or someone you know – struggles from an eating disorder, the key is early and aggressive intervention. Treatment includes medical monitoring, dietary support and therapy.
This disease does not discriminate based on gender, age or race. An eating disorder is not a diet that has gone too far or a person who just can’t control what he or she eats. An eating disorder is a very serious mental health condition that is extremely life threatening.
For more information on the symptoms of an eating disorder, visit www.feast-ed.org
Cristina Shaw, Ph.D., serves as coordinator of the Eating Disorders Program at the St. Bernards Counseling Center, 615A East Matthews Avenue. A licensed clinical social worker, she works with individuals of all ages, with groups and with families dealing with a variety of eating disorders. Those include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating and other disorders involving anxiety- or depression-related eating. Shaw serves on the board of the Eating Disorders Coalition of Arkansas.