“Just eat.” “You’re not motivated enough to recover.” “You don’t stop so you must want to be sick.” “You just need more willpower.” “I wish I could be anorexic so I could lose all this weight.” “Only white teenage girls get eating disorders.” The myths that surround eating disorders in the United States are too numerous to count, and this lack of awareness only promotes false beliefs and comments such as these. There are some who know such statements are born of ignorance. Such individuals know someone with an eating disorder, or perhaps suffered themselves, and have personally debunked the myths surrounding this devastating illness. But how can we fault others for a lack of awareness when even healthcare providers know very little regarding the truth about eating disorders?
Over the past ten to fifteen years, the field of eating disorder treatment has expanded across the United States. Professionals now realize that men do get eating disorders and eating disorders are not only found in well-to-do Caucasian teen girls. Experts now recognize that body weight is not an accurate indicator of how severe an individual’s disorder is, and that eating disorders are a real psychiatric illness rather than a mere battle with the scale. Experts even know that a combination of certain medications and psychotherapy have been proven to improve an individual’s ability to recover in a clinical setting. But if all of this is true, then why is the recovery rate for people diagnosed with eating disorders still so low, and the relapse rate so high? And why does society as a whole retain such a great misunderstanding of anorexia, bulimia, and the related eating disorders?
The answer is simple: a lack of research, not enough community prevention and education, and minimal access to adequate treatment. The eating disorder field is quite new as far as psychiatric illnesses are concerned, so it is understandable that we know less about this illness than say, depression, which has been heavily studied since the rise of psychology as a science. But our lack of knowledge has gone on too long, and the emotional and economic impacts eating disorders have on society have taken their toll. Eating disorders are estimated to cost the United States 5 billion dollars a year in medical expenses alone. Even now, only those with private insurance are able to access treatment, and the length of time and level of care these individuals receive are not in the hands of the doctors and therapists who treat them; the insurance companies decide how much treatment a person gets and refuse to pay after very short periods of time. As a result, very few patients receive adequate care and a fair chance at recovering from this all-encompassing illness.
So the question remains: how do we change this? It appears that others have been asking the same question because a bill was introduced at the federal level to improve funding for eating disorder research and access to care in 2013. H. R. 2101: Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders Act of 2013 would bring forth multiple changes for eating disorder sufferers and professionals, including grant opportunities, treatment modality query, further education for healthcare professionals and educators, and most importantly, preventative movements. Sadly the benefits this bill would introduce in our healthcare system have remained unseen as H. R. 2101 has remained stagnant for the past year, and will likely remain so. That is, unless the public takes matters into its own hands and pushes it back into the forefront where it belongs.
Despite the gains the eating disorder field has made in the past ten years, we still have yet to learn how to adequately help those who struggle. And our children and teens are the most at risk. In the past ten years, the number of eating disorder-related hospitalizations for children and teens has increased by 119%. While this number may in part reflect a growing awareness of the medical dangers that come with eating disorders, this fact is overshadowed by a terrifying truth: each year medical professionals are seeing eating disorders in children beginning at increasingly early ages. Yet most children still go without treatment for their eating disorders as the disorder frequently remains unrecognized by the adults in their lives. Most of the time, this is not due to a lack of caring by these adults, but rather a shortage of public knowledge.
As someone who suffered with an eating disorder as a child prior to finally being diagnosed and treated in adulthood after nine years of suffering, I cannot emphasize enough the necessity of prevention through education and early intervention. The longer a person has an eating disorder, especially one that goes untreated, the more difficult, expensive, and time consuming it becomes to treat. And more importantly, the lasting medical damage caused by eating disorders increases exponentially the longer a person suffers. H. R. 2101: Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders Act of 2013 seeks to end this suffering and impairment. As social workers, parents, educators, and administrators, we have a duty to support this bill, restore health in our communities, and promote wellness in the younger generations.
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