If you were asked to name the deadliest mental health disorder, what would you guess it to be? The answer is eating disorders. Eating disorders are rarely talked about and yet they are more life-threatening than any other form of mental illness.
Obviously, this health concern is a topic meriting more discussion among Americans in general and among at-risk families in particular. Parents must learn more about eating disorders and then be ready to talk about them with their kids.
Types Of Eating Disorders
Perhaps the most recognizable form of eating disorder is anorexia. Formally referred to as anorexia nervosa, the disorder is a radical and compulsive behavior in which a person severely restricts the amount of calories they consume. People with anorexia have a distorted self-perception and a strong need to find control over something in their life. Controlling what they eat satisfies this need.
The person is driven to be thin and fears being fat so that they actually starve themselves. As the illness progresses it is easy to see that something is wrong because despite being painfully thin, the person continues to restrict their food intake. Often, by this stage, help is too late in coming.
Bulimia, or bulimia nervosa, is another kind of eating disorder. In this instance the individual is torn between a search for comfort and a need to regain control. The person may binge on food or even eat normally but then, almost immediately, feels guilty for doing so. To compensate for eating, the person will go to the bathroom and induce vomiting or uses laxatives and diuretics to rid themselves of the calories. Other times the person makes up for eating by exercising excessively. You may not be able to tell a person is bulimic just by looking at their general appearance.
Binge eating is a comfort-motivated disorder. Just as an alcoholic or drug user will use a substance to dull painful emotions, the binge eater will do the same with food. Like bulimics, the binge eater feels deep guilt over having eaten but unlike a person with bulimia, the binge eater will not attempt to compensate for eating. Instead, they will eat more food to try and silence their shame and comfort themselves.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) is a category for a range of disordered eating. A person diagnosed with EDNOS will evidence some of the symptoms of another eating disorder, but not enough to meet the required diagnostic criteria. Far from being a less-real form of eating disorder, people with EDNOS make up the majority. They share many of the same symptoms with other disorders and face many comparable long-range complications.
Eating Disorder Intervention Usually Comes Before Self-Realization
Most people with an eating disorder have no idea that they are in danger. And because they see nothing wrong with their behavior, they rarely ask for help on their own. In fact, if they are losing weight there were probably lots of positive comments early on which reinforced their disordered thinking and behavior.
However, there are signs that things are amiss before a person becomes life-threateningly thin.
- Food-related rituals are performed. The person may cut their food into tiny bites. They may only eat certain kinds of food, certain amounts of food or will only eat at certain times of day.
- The person is preoccupied with food – its preparation, its fat or calorie content. Or they may be obsessed about their weight – weighing themselves multiple times per day.
- Family meals are avoided or the person will excuse themselves frequently from the table in order to go to the bathroom.
- Eating tiny portions when in public.
- Depression or anxiety in general.
Why This Disorder Must Be Discussed In Families
If families sense that something even might be wrong, it’s time to have a frank discussion about eating disorders. With this illness it is important to catch things earlier rather than later. It’s important that the person with an eating disorder feels noticed and cared about.
Talking about what is observed without passing judgment is a sign of love. And even if a child does not show signs themselves, if the conversation permits, moms and dads should introduce the subject and get the facts on the table. Someone the child knows just might be struggling.
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