Eating disorders are mental health conditions that involve an unhealthy relationship with and use of food. Anyone of any age, gender or culture can be affected by an eating disorder. A person’s family and close friends may also be impacted by someone’s eating disorder, and feel unsure about how to help their loved one. Eating disorders include bulimia, binge eating disorder, and anorexia. A Doctor might also diagnose a condition known as “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). Eating disorders can involve unhealthy preoccupation with food, limiting food and calorie intake, eating a large quantity of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. misusing laxatives, vomiting or excessive exercise). Eating disorders have complex causes, including biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors and may also be accompanied by other physical or mental health conditions. Eating disorders can be a way that someone with manages difficult and painful feelings, including feeling a loss of control. However, they can also lead to feelings of shame, guilt and isolation.
As is the case with many other serious mental health conditions, there are a number of myths and misconceptions associated with eating disorders. For example, people often assume that only women are impacted, or that it is an illness that affects teenagers rather than those in middle or older age. Some people may also hold the false misconception that those with an eating disorder are could stop their disordered eating patterns if they wanted to. These misconceptions are incorrect and harmful, and can increase the stigma and shame that those affected may feel about their illness, making it harder to speak about the eating disorder and access support.
Whilst eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can result in death (anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses), they are also treatable. Accessing support promptly offers the best chance of recovery, although treatment can be effective even when a person has suffered for many years. Speaking to a GP is a good first step in accessing help. A GP will want to refer someone with a suspected eating disorder for specialist assessment and treatment. The person will be involved in decisions about potential treatment plans. For many people, accessing support in the community is a really helpful way of getting medical and therapeutic help whilst still having daily contact with close friends, family and other support networks. Sometimes in-patient treatment is recommended. Whatever the treatment plan, it is likely that a talking therapy will be offered to support managing and recovering from an eating disorder. There are a number of different therapeutic approaches that can be beneficial. Some approaches may focus on your thought patterns. Other therapies may focus on exploring past difficulties and conflicts. It may be that family therapy is suggested so that family members can better understand the eating disorder and how this impacts their loved one, themselves and the wider family. Equally, family and friends who support someone with an eating disorder may feel they would benefit from accessing their own one-to-one therapy. Speaking about how they feel about someone’s eating disorder can be very helpful.