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Shine a light on Eating Disorders during Mental Illness Awareness Week

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada. Established in 1992 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association, it is a national public campaign meant to help open the eyes of Canadians to the realities of mental illness.

During Mental Illness Awareness Week, it would be remiss not to highlight the significant impact that Eating Disorders have on approximately one million people (Stats Canada 2016) across the country. Eating Disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is estimated that 10-15% of individuals with Anorexia Nervosa will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.

Twenty percent of people with Anorexia and 25-35 per cent of people with Bulimia Nervosa may attempt suicide in their lifetime. For females age 15-24, the mortality rate associated with Anorexia is 12 times greater than all other causes of death combined.

These statistics are frightening to be sure, but they are just statistics. They highlight the seriousness and prevalence of Eating Disorders but do little to show the significant and lifelong impacts they can have on both the sufferer and their friends and loved ones, even more so now with the isolation and lack of face-to-face support because of COVID 19.  Throughout my many years of treatment I have met people who have lost jobs, relationships and even their freedom as a result of their Eating Disorders. The effect of Eating Disorders on a person’s physical body can cause irreversible damage, leading to lifelong medical issues and, as mentioned, death. This really hit home for me last year when three people whom I met through my journey in treatment died from the effects of their Eating Disorder within a few months. I already knew the statistics; but it can be hard to face the reality until a person who you once sat next to waiting for an appointment suddenly isn’t there anymore.

Eating Disorders are extremely complex as many people with Eating Disorders also suffer from other types of mental illnesses including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, addiction and more. I have never met someone who didn’t have some underlying mental illness that played a role in the development their Eating Disorder, disproving the myth that Eating Disorders are just about being thin. Although Eating Disorders can be triggered by diet culture and a desire to lose weight, they are much more complex and need to be treated by a multidisciplinary team that can look after both the physical affects of the Disorder, as well as the underlying issues that drive a person’s desire to manipulate food and their body. This makes Eating Disorders notoriously difficult to treat as there often needs to be a period of nutritional rehabilitation before a professional can even attempt to help the person with the Eating Disorder cope with any other mental illnesses. In fact, intensive inpatient treatment, which may help save someone’s life in the short term, often ends with nutritional rehabilitation without even scratching the surface of the underlying issues that caused the Eating Disorder in the first place. This can set the stage for relapse and can cause a “revolving door” effect that is common in many treatment programs across the country.

Eating Disorders can affect anyone, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or socio-economic background. The statistic is that one million people in Canada are suffering from an Eating Disorder right now; but I would argue that that number is low. I believe there are many people in Canada that have Eating Disorders that have not been diagnosed, as symptoms can often fly under the radar, especially with how pervasive diet culture is in our society. Most people have had a brush with some type of disordered eating in their lifetime, whether it turned into a diagnosed Eating Disorder or not.

Eating Disorders are not a phase, a diet, choice or a lifestyle. They are serious mental illnesses that need highly qualified professionals to treat. They are deadly and need to be addressed and taken seriously. Not just during Mental Illness Awareness Week, but every day.

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