Eating disorders are some of the most challenging mental illnesses and are serous, life-threatening conditions. Affecting one in 20 people during their lifetime, eating disorders frequently occur in people with other mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse issues and as with other mental illnesses, early identification and early intervention are keys to recovery.
NAMI joins NEDA this week in support of the aim to ultimately prevent eating disorders while reducing the stigma surrounding these conditions and improving access to treatment.
NAMI recently spoke with Andrea Vazzana, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and eating disorders specialist, to learn more about eating disorders and how to help a friend or loved one living with one of these conditions.
NAMI: What is the current prevalence of eating disorders in America?
Vazzana: Overall, over 10 percent of young women currently meet criteria of one of the eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or eating disorder NOS (not otherwise specified). The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5), set to publish in May this year, includes binge eating disorder as a mental illness. Men can also live with eating disorders. While the prevalence of men to women was previously thought to be a ratio of 1-to-10, it is now believed that the ratio is closer to 1-to-6, meaning that six times more women than men have the condition. Although not as common in men, it is important to recognize that more men are now being treated for these mental illnesses.
Some believe that eating disorders are more prevalent in women because of what is called the “thin-ideal”. Biology and environment are both contributors to this condition, and researchers have found that the cultural pressure to equate thinness with beauty, as well as some sports that encourage low body fat and thinness, are factors. It is not always the ideal cultural “think” to equate thinness in men and therefore that social factor is often removed. Still, there are some sports and cultures where being thin is idealized and therefore a contributor.
What are the types of eating disorders and are there any recent changes in prevalence and conditions?
Vazzana: Eating disorders NOS, will be changing with the new DSM, to be published in May. The criteria and diagnosis will change. Binge eating will be a full-blown disorder all on its own. Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia in that it includes the binging, but not the purging, aspect of the condition.
What are the most common co-occurring disorders (mental health conditions)?
The most common is depression and dysthymia, what some consider a less-severe but often longer lasting condition than depression. Half to three-fourths of those with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression in their lifetime, and there is a direct relationship to malnourishment and depression.
In addition to depression, the other most common co-occurring conditions are anxiety disorders, specifically social phobias and, with people living with anorexia, OCD, which impacts about 25 percent of individuals with this condition.
Substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse, is co-occurring in about 5 percent of people living with anorexia and from 25-40 percent of people living with bulimia.
Personality disorders are also common co-occurring conditions, particularly for people living with bulimia.
What are current treatment options available and what are likely outcomes?
Recovery from eating disorders is possible. The right treatment choice depends on the type of eating disorder, but treatment approaches are often similar for the various conditions, and coordination of care between mental health care providers, nutritionists and medical professionals is important, depending on the individual’s treatment plan. Nutritional guidance, as well as individual and family counseling, is an important treatment options to consider.
The best rates of recovery for people living with bulimia involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) where the focus is often on normalizing weight and eating behaviors and challenging distorted thinking patterns that are usually associated with this condition. One of the goals is to interrupt the thought pattern that leads to individuals evaluating themselves in terms of shape and weight. Individual therapy is often another key to recovery.
The best rates of recovery for people living with anorexia include treatment plans that incorporate family-based therapy, often the Maudsley Method, which is often used for adolescents and children with Anorexia still living at home. This intervention involves parent coaching to encourage feeding their children to help restore their weight—eating meals with them and encouraging eating. With anorexia, it is important that the individual restore their weight as soon as possible; the longer they are in a danger zone of thinness and malnutrition, the worse the outcome. Early intervention is key; people living with anorexia (about 5 percent) have the highest probability for mortality, including death by suicide.
In addition to psychotherapies, medications, specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs, a type of antidepressant medication, are sometimes used in patients that are responding to CBT as an adjunct therapy.
What myths are the most common and what stereotypes exist that create barriers to understanding and treatment?
The myths surrounding eating disorders are vast and include myths primarily around race, age and social economics.
When people think of anorexia, they often mistakenly think of young, white, high social status females. This is not the case. There are 5-10 million people in America who have eating disorders, and one out of 6 are men, who more deeply experience the negative aspects of stereotypes and have unique barriers to treatment and acceptance.
We also know that eating disorders do not just affect white women. The rates are as common in young Hispanic and Native American women as they are in Caucasian women. With African American and Asian American women, however, there does seem to be a lower prevalence, with the exception of pre-adolescent African American girls. With Caucasian girls, the prevalence is lower and rates increase with puberty and continue to increase as into early adulthood.
Age is another myth; eating disorders do not just affect teens and young adults. More and more are being diagnosed for the first time in middle age. And unless effectively treated, eating disorders will last into adulthood for many.
How can someone help a friend or loved one who may have or one who is living with an eating disorder? How should they/could they intervene if needed and how can the provide support?
Regarding intervention, the key to remember is that the earlier the better. In terms of identifying a problem, it is important to know that it is common to have body dissatisfaction. Most women are more critical. However, when they go beyond dissatisfaction and they are harshly critical and disparaging of their bodies, and when there is noticeable evidence of over-thinness and over concern about food and weight, there may be a problem.
Some people mistakenly wait to intervene, thinking that the individual may grow out of their condition. The best thing to do is to let them know about your concern. You have observed behavior—talking poorly about their body, other signs—and you just want to be honest. Saying something like, “I have noticed these things and I am concerned about your health,” without being judgmental, can be the most natural first step. Because individuals living with eating disorders are generally already self-critical, it is important to so separate the illness from the individual. Try not to focus comments on appearance but rather focus comments on health by expressing concerns and the need for further medical evaluation. Recognizing that people with eating disorders often consider being thin with success, being persistent and consistent while avoiding criticism and comments on thinness, is important.
After an individual is in treatment for an eating disorder, one of the best things a family member or parent can do is to get family-based treatment or therapy. During meals, families and friends should try not to be angry even if they see their friend or loved one struggling with eating. Working to avoid impatience can be challenging, but neutral and supportive reassurance offer the best outcomes.
It is important that friends and family strive to avoid commenting on appearance. Avoid comments like, “You’re gaining some weight, that looks great!” Compliment other things, perhaps superficial aspects of clothing, conversations, other activities and contributions, but avoid mentions of size or appearance if possible.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about eating disorders?
The importance of intervening early! Treatment works best the earlier you can begin it. The longer the condition persists, the more deadly it becomes with more physical complications to manage.
Andrea Vazzana, Ph.D.,is a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School ofMedicine and a licensed psychologist at the Child Study Center.