There has been a significant rise in the prevalence and severity of eating disorders in recent years. Research studies have highlighted the increasing number of children, males, and adolescents, presenting with eating disorders, and the rise in anorexia in particular.
One of the factors linked to this rise is the growth in social media use, where people are exposed to continuous subliminal messages related to what one’s body should look like, what way one should be eating, how one should be exercising, how one should dress, what beauty products one should be using, or health supplements one should be taking, all in the name of being ‘healthy’ or ‘attractive’. In the world we live in today, it can be much harder to recognise harmful messages, as they can exist within guises such as ‘clean eating’ and what it is to be ‘healthy’. It can also be very difficult to control one’s exposure to these kinds of subliminal messages as social media has evolved to become a multi-functional platform which we use to achieve so many of our daily personal and professional goals.
Since the beginning of Covid-19, the prevalence of eating disorders has become a greater concern in Ireland. The Irish Medical Journal (2021) recently reported a 66% increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders in 2020, compared to 2019. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), adult mental health services and paediatric hospitals have all reported an increase in numbers of referrals for eating disorders and severity of all types of eating disorders- anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. BodyWhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, has reported that there has been a significant increase in people seeking their services, with a 110% increase in users of the online support group for those experiencing an eating disorder between March-November 2020, and a 98% increase in participation in their Peer Led Resilience (PiLaR) programme for families and supporters, compared to 2019. .
Eating disorders are complex and serious mental illnesses characterised by an unhealthy preoccupation with food, exercise and body weight or shape, which negatively affects the sufferer’s physical and/or mental health. They may be understood as a manifestation of physiological, psychological, and interpersonal distress and as a coping mechanism for emotional adversity, often rooted in developmental trauma. Despite the many misconceptions that still exist, people struggling with eating disorders do not choose to undereat or overeat, to purge by vomiting, using laxatives, or excessively exercising; they are generally driven by a compulsion to enact these behaviours and it may feel like their life depends on them doing so.
One of the best ways to support the issue of eating disorders in Ireland is to raise awareness and to educate oneself. This puts one in a good position to help a friend or family member who may struggle with one.
Here are a few aspects of eating disorders worth noting:
- People with anorexia often feel that their appearance is the only thing that they are validated for hence their eating disorder can become intertwined with their identity and be very difficult to surrender. They may have come to know themselves as “the one who could be a model”, “the fit friend”, “the disciplined one” or “the super healthy one”. To let go and recover means grieving an entire identity and being able to trust that they will be loved for who they are, as they (re)discover who they truly are as an individual. If you are supporting someone in recovery from anorexia, try to acknowledge and appreciate positive qualities you experience in them as a person, rather than how well you think they look now or how well they performed a certain task. Recognise too that letting go of one’s identity is significant and your care and patience with them will be felt.
- There is often an enormous amount of anxiety beneath eating disorders to the point that the sufferer is afraid of living life itself. This can sometimes be recognised in the rigid routines they set for themselves and the distress they show when something goes awry, or they deviate from the plan. A conflict exists in them between a part that yearns for spontaneity and freedom in their daily lives and a part that longs for perfection in themselves. This can be quite tormenting as the latter becomes the demanding eating disorder voice. Obsession with food, exercise and body rituals serves as a distraction from other areas of the sufferer’s life that feel ‘out of control’ and far too overwhelming to deal with.
You can support someone struggling, by:
- Checking in with them about areas of their life unrelated to eating, exercise or their appearance and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling.
- Try to listen with curiosity about their experience of struggle, and a desire to better understand. Avoid jumping to conclusions, advising, or judging. A loving presence will speak volumes.
- You may also suggest journaling to them, if they seem open, as this can help them to express and understand their feelings privately.
- Finally, try to spend time with them, engaging in fun and creative activities to invite spontaneity in them. The more you are free in yourself, acting silly, and being light-hearted, the more likely they are to feel safe to do the same.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder or a body image concern, contact Let’s Get Talking on: 0818 714 001 or www.letsgettalking.ie
For more information on eating disorders, you can download the HSE Eating Disorder App: https:// ncped.selfcareapp.mobi
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