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Don’t Believe Everything You Think

(Disclaimer – I am not a clinician or licensed mental health professional – I am strictly “behind the scenes” with marketing and community outreach – and these are my own observations.)

When I started working with Focus Integrative Centers last year, I knew very little about eating disorders. I already had mental health experience under my belt as well as sales and marketing, so this new position that would require local outreach within the mental health field seemed like a fitting opportunity – but marketing for an eating disorder treatment program? What would I tell an MD or someone with a PhD about eating disorders that they didn’t already know? Would I need to memorize numerous facts and statistics to even hold a conversation about our treatment program here? I wasn’t sure what to expect honestly.

My mind soon would be put at ease however, as I quickly discovered that most people in this world were just like me – they too know very little about eating disorders – and to my surprise this would include many healthcare professionals. This gave me reassurance that I could probably manage a conversation or two since I wouldn’t always be the only one lacking in an abundance of eating disorder knowledge that I was sure I had to have. Nonetheless, in order to do my job well, I would still need to understand more about treatment and what eating disorders really are – and after sitting through several group therapy sessions for our Intensive Outpatient (IOP) program, I wanted to know more.

The patients I quietly observed were not at all what I had been picturing and I never would’ve guessed that any of them were struggling with an eating disorder. Most seemed “fine” just by looking at them, and there were casual moments of chatter about new podcasts or Cardi B while laughter and smiles peeked through the serious discussions. I guess I had expected a much more somber crowd, because they were in “treatment.” And while there were certainly somber sessions because this is a serious illness, I was still struck at the difference between the reality of what eating disorders looked like compared to what I had assumed. Contrary to popular belief, we simply can’t always tell by someone’s looks or by someone’s weight if there’s an eating disorder taking place – and most of the time they aren’t going to announce it to you either. This is part of the reason this disorder is so highly under and misdiagnosed. There’s an estimated 30 million people who are struggling in the United States. It affects all races, genders, and ages – there is zero discrimination here. Even children as young as 5 and 6 years old are being reported with disordered eating habits and body image issues. Learning this info was shocking to me.

Quickly I realized there were other assumptions a lot of us make about eating disorders that are just inaccurate. For one, it’s not always about an intense fear of being fat or a desire to be thin. There are many risk factors involved – some sociocultural, some biological, and some psychological. I learned that many individuals have past traumas – sometimes horrific ones – and they have found the one thing they can control in life is their relationship with food. Whether it’s restricting, purging, binging, or all the above it’s a coping skill they’ve developed to quiet his or her mind when everything else is shouting so loudly in his or her head. It’s referred to as the “ED voice” and I imagine it to be like sitting inside Neyland Stadium during a home game (maybe not this season) while trying to study for a final. Most of us would have a difficult time drowning out that noise and would do anything just to get it to stop, even if the silence was only temporary. The eating disorder wasn’t a conscious choice or a lifestyle change – it was something they had held onto that maintained a calmness and felt safe for a while, like a security blanket or a teddy bear, but now they didn’t know how to let it go. This was not a lifestyle change, and it reminded me of callous comments I’d heard in the past about people wishing they could get an eating disorder to lose weight like this was an easy decision they’d made over the weekend. This saddened me wishing I could go back in time and respond to such comments with what I now understood. And yet another shocking piece of information I read – eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – not schizophrenia and not depression like one might assume. Severe undernourishment, organ malfunction, and suicide can each have a role in this statistic if there is not timely and proper treatment. Full recovery is possible but it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process.

Highest mortality rate? Small children?

As I continued to absorb more and more, I started to feel more confident in what to say because I also felt it needed to be said. Since I wouldn’t be providing treatment like my fellow coworkers, all I could really do here was spread the word – which was exactly what I was hired to do.

Often when I’m out in our community talking with professionals, many of them have never heard of Focus and what we offer. Many of them tell me they “never see” eating disorders, but they’ll keep us in mind. More often than not, a referral from that professional will then come across our desk a few weeks later. Eating disorders are all around us whether we see them or not. Whether it’s a formal lecture, a casual chat, or even a blog post – being able to open another person’s eyes or change an assumption is something to feel good about. Creating awareness in an unaware world is a simple task, expert or no expert, that we can all take part in which is the most important fact I’ve learned so far.

Written by: Lauren Sterritt, BA, Marketing & Community Relations Coordinator