I was just eight years old when I first began to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and toxic behaviours around eating, but it wasn’t until I was sixteen (and in the tight grips of anorexia nervosa) that I was hospitalised and officially diagnosed with a debilitating eating disorder.
It took my family and I many years of heartache, countless hospital visits and endless therapy sessions to find the appropriate road to recovery. I often reflect on the many years we spent navigating the mental health system, unsure of where to go or what to do, and wonder what direction my life would have taken had we detected the illness much earlier and intervened before it took control.
Sadly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. Eating disorders are unique among mental health conditions as they often manifest as physical health complications, which can lead to serious and life-threatening illnesses and even death if left undiagnosed and untreated.
Statistics show that anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and young adults but is also sadly growing in numbers in the older generations. Those who suffer from this illness have a mortality rate 12 times higher than average individual, making it the highest premature mortality rate of any mental health condition. If left untreated, eating disorders tend to become more severe and less responsive to treatment.
Research shows that most people who develop eating disorders (an estimated 90%) are female. Despite typically being associated with adolescents and young women, eating disorders also affect middle-aged or elderly women and until recently, little has been known about the prevalence in this older age group.
Eating disorders are manipulative, debilitating and harmful mental illnesses that thrive on a sufferer’s shame and incite secrecy. This being the case, many older women suffering from disordered eating may avoid seeking help, fear being forced to gain unwanted weight or stigmatized for having a “teenager’s disease”.
Many women have been living with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia or a toxic relationship with food for decades and have gone undiagnosed and untreated. Societal pressures on women, the expectations of the patriarchy and a general lack of education around negative body image has meant many women have suffered in silence for way too long.
It’s only in recent years that clinicians at treatment centres specialising in such issues have reported seeing an increase in requests for help from older women. The body positivity movement and the incredible work of charities (like the Butterfly Foundation) are helping to raise the much needed awareness of ED prevalence and the importance of early intervention however, as a society, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Studies around prevention and treatment methods for eating disorders (as well as most mental health issues in general) suggest that early detection and treatment improves the rate of recovery, reduces symptoms and increases the likelihood of staying free of the illness. For example, when sufferers of anorexia nervosa are given treatment within the first three years of the illness onset they have a much greater prospect of recovery. It is clear that early intervention and a destigmatisation of the age assumptions associated with eating disorders will help improve the chances of a successful recovery for those suffering with these debilitating illnesses.
As a 31-year-old who has been on my recovery journey for almost a decade, I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be for suffers of eating disorders and the support networks around them to get the help, education and support they need. Sadly, finding the right mental health treatment can be very complicated and will often come at a great cost financially and emotionally, making ongoing support difficult to maintain. My experiences navigating the mental health system and the growing need for ED prevention tools were one of the main drivers behind penning my first children’s book, ‘When Anna Came To Stay’.
‘When Anna Came To Stay’ will give readers an insight into the complex thoughts and feelings associated with negative body image and poor self-esteem. It aims to give readers (both young and old) a glimpse into the family dynamics involved when a person experiences an eating disorder and highlights the need for family members to be sensitive and prepared to provide support during the healing process.
‘When Anna Came To Stay’ is the book I wish I had when I was eight years old. It is a book that will open up an honest dialogue about body image and encourage those who are struggling to seek help and support. By having these conversations early, we can start to educate the next generation of children and young girls that they are strong, courageous and intelligent individuals who are so much more than just their bodies.
Tips for those supporting a loved one suffering with an eating disorder
- Encourage them to seek help from a professional
- Limit discussion of diets, appearance ideals and speaking negatively about weight
- Avoid talking about appearances, even if it’s meant as a compliment
- Encourage positive language around food (ie no foods should be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’)
- Tell them that you care and are there to support them
- Promote self-esteem and build up their confidence
- Be patient and supportive
For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also use webchat here.
For urgent support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.