This week marks National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2017, created by the National Eating Disorder Association in order to shine a spotlight on eating disorders and increase recognition and access to care for those who are in need. The theme this year is “It’s Time to Talk About It” with a focus on busting myths, taking action, shattering stigma, and celebrating recovery stories.

Eating Disorders are serious mental health disorders with the highest mortality rate of any mental illnesses. Yet, so often people struggle in the shadows, in secret, afraid to seek help or not knowing what kind of help to seek.

It is also a reality that we live in a culture where things like limiting food intake, over-exercising, and modifying body shape and size are celebrated, no matter the cost. Yet, in a study of 14 and 15 year olds, dieting was the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder… and compared to those who do not diet, those who dieted moderately were 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder and those who restricted extremely were 11x more likely to develop an eating disorder. (National Eating Disorder Association).

In addition, weight shaming has been found to pose a significant threat to both psychological AND physical health. It can result in increased depression, decreased self-esteem, and increased dissatisfaction with one’s body. (National Eating Disorder Association).

These studies are sobering. This is something to be taken seriously.

Eating Disorders affect people of all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and sexual orientation.

They do not discriminate.

Those who are struggling often suffer from both social stigma and self-perception stigma. They fear what others will think and they also have negative thoughts themselves about their illness.

What are some of the fears and worries people have about speaking up?

  • It will make me look weak
  • I will be labeled “crazy”
  • I won’t be taken seriously
  • It will affect my future education or employment
  • People won’t want to be around me anymore
  • I will lose my friends
  • People will blame my family
  • I don’t want to be seen as different or weird
  • I brought this on myself
  • It’s not that bad
  • People will think it is just vanity

The reality is, unless we start talking about it, like the theme of NEDAW 2017, these fears will continue and many of them may become real for those who are in need of help.

The unfortunate truth is, fears of stigma exist for good reason. There are misunderstandings and false ideas about mental illness among the general public and among health care professionals. The individuals suffering and their family members often get blamed for their illness.

Fear of stigma is a major barrier to getting help and finding support, which could prove to be life-saving for some individuals.

Some of the greatest consequences of stigma are shame, isolation and silence.

We feel shame about who we are, about our struggle, and can feel like our illness is a reflection on our character or worth.

As a result, we pull away, we isolate, as a way to cope with the feelings of shame and the fear of rejection.

This isolation keeps us silent. It keeps us from speaking up, and asking for help.

So how do we shatter stigma and shame?

  1. Take Responsibility: Shattering stigma and breaking the power of shame is all of our responsibilities. This means looking inward and recognizing how our own biases and prejudices against those with mental illness may be present.
  • Ask Yourself: Is there anything I am saying or doing that is making it hard for someone to share their experience with me?
  • Review Your Language: Do I or those around me use words like manipulation, attention-seeking, or crazy? Consider changing your language or encouraging others to change their language to be more compassionate toward those with mental health struggles.
  1. Get Educated: Educate yourself about eating disorders, how they develop, and the process of recovery. Challenge assumptions or things heard in the media. Read the stories of people who have recovered and see the person instead of just the illness.
  1. Get Involved: There are so many great ways to get involved and help to shatter misconceptions and advocate for access to care for the people who need it. Here are some organizations making a difference that you can get involved in:
  • Eating Disorder Coalition: Lobby our lawmakers to make your voice heard and advocate for more education about eating disorders and access to treatment.
  • National Eating Disorder Association: Share NEDA’s confidential screening with someone who is struggling.
  • National Alliance on Mental Health: Join the Stigma Free Campaign

We have to break the silence, start talking about things, use our own circles of influence to make a difference. We can do this, together, and make an impact. It’s Time to Talk About it!