Each year the last week of February is denoted as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Raising awareness about eating disorders saves lives. Eating disorders still remain the most lethal of all mental illnesses. The reported incidence and prevalence of eating disorders continue to grow, which means that more people who struggle with eating disorders are being identified. However, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that between 60-70% of individuals with an eating disorder do not seek treatment for it. This is higher than estimates of other untreated mental illnesses, indicating that the stigma around eating disorders is still very strong. There is still work to be done.
A common suggestion given to those seeking to raise awareness is to initiate conversations about eating disorders. This can feel intimidating to those who might want to contribute, but are hesitant to venture into sensitive territory. Here are some insights into how you can talk about eating disorders.
Ask questions. Most important conversations start with a question. A good question to initiate a conversation about eating disorders is, “What do you know about eating disorders?”This simple, open-ended question invites someone to share what they may or may not know about eating disorders in an engaging and non-threatening way. Approach the conversation with what I call humble curiosity, this doesn’t mean walking on eggshells or dancing around the issue, this approach allows you ask questions directly, while maintaining humility and an openness to learn.You may want to ask questions about what causes an eating disorder, who is at risk for eating disorders, how do people know when someone has an eating disorder, or how people overcome an eating disorder.
Talk about more than eating. Eating disorders are about much more than food, and trying to steer a conversation towards the deeper elements of an eating disorder can make it more powerful. An aspect of eating disorders many people find compelling and relatable is talking about themes of control, self-esteem, trauma, and relationships. Eating disorders touch upon all of these themes in some way. Talk about the relationships between trauma and how a person nourishes their body in response, wonder about how someone with an eating disorder sees themselves, or what it is like to love someone with an eating disorder who has difficulty loving themselves. Eating disorders are complicated and multi-layered, try getting to a layer below the surface in a conversation.
Share personal experiences. Even if you have never struggled with an eating disorder, you are probably able to relate to some of the aspects involved in an eating disorder. Being willing to share your experiences in a conversation makes it deeper and more authentic. Talking about various things you have found personally challenging can be humanizing, it allows for greater empathy and encourages others in a conversation to do the same. Saying something like, “I have not struggled with an eating disorder, but I relate to how hard it is to give something up…”. You can also share the experiences of others, “I heard from a friend who had an eating disorder it was the hardest thing they ever went through.” While being respectful of someone’s privacy, you can share any actual experience you have had with someone who has dealt with an eating disorder. The personal touch can be very meaningful in these conversations.
Make time and take time. When I tell people what I do for a living, they almost always want to talk about eating disorders. Whether it is a social acquaintance or the clerk at grocery store, I have made it a policy to take time to actually have a meaningful conversation about eating disorders with anyone who would like to. When someone brings up the topic, it is important to engage with them. It’s not like talking about the weather, and yet it is also not something that has to be talked about behind closed doors. You don’t have to be an expert about eating disorders to engage in a conversation, and if there is something that comes up you don’t know about a good fall-back is to say, “I don’t know a ton about eating disorders, but I do know they are serious illnesses and it’s important to talk about them.” A good awareness-raising conversation can take some time, so it would be important to carve out some time to let a conversation develop. If you haven’t had a conversation about eating disorders with important people in your life recently, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week would be a good time to start one. Try the simple lead-in and maintain your humble curiosity, and I can assure you that a productive and meaningful conversation will come out of it. Not only will it benefit you and those you are speaking with, but it contributes to the awareness of eating disorders and saves lives.
Matt Keck, MFT is the co-Founder and CEO of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment Programs. He understands that raising awareness about eating disorders is crucial to providing an environment where those who need help can come forward to receive it.