Teens across the country find themselves struggling with eating disorders, but as education on such issues grow, help has become more available.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, the rate of development of new cases of eating disorders has continued to increase since the 1950s.
Each case of an eating disorder is different and has to be treated as such, clinical counselor Tasha Boyer of Kovacs Counseling said.
As stated on the NEDA website, eating disorders are generally broken down into three major categories: anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia. In addition, there are more forms of eating disorders that do not have all the characteristics that the most common three have.
The first category, anorexia nervosa, is described by NEDA as a serious eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.
“Someone with anorexia nervosa has an irrational fear of getting fat, can’t see what their body actually looks like, and they restrict their food intake or exercise and purge in order to maintain a really low weight,” Boyer said.
NEDA characterizes binge eating disorders as frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food and feeling out of control during the binge. This process is then commonly followed by feelings of shame, distress or guilt about the binging.
People who suffer from a binge eating disorder do not regularly use unhealthy compensatory methods like purging to counter the large intake of food like they do with bulimia. Bulimia includes binge eating but is then usually countered by purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, over-exercising or abusing laxatives, Boyer explained.
Although some eating disorders are not as common and aren’t defined as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, NEDA said all forms of eating disorders are characterized as potentially life-threatening mental illnesses.
The causes of eating disorders are not known because there are so many things taken into consideration, said Outreach and Program Manager Emily Monson of The Emily Program, a muti-state treatment facility program focused on helping those who suffer from an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders are caused by biological factors, physiological factors and environmental factors,” Monson said.
Some of the biological factors that can cause eating disorders are malnutrition and family history of eating disorders or anxiety and depression, Boyer said.
Boyer added that environmental factors like major transitions, such as moving schools, and seeing the media place an emphasis on health and perfection can cause pressure to maintain a certain appearance.
The cause of an eating disorder will never truly be known because they are all different, Boyer said, so the treatment for such an illness will also vary from person to person. Boyer added that an important aspect of every recovery is the team of specialists each person needs in their recovery.
“That team includes a medical doctor, a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication to help with underlying anxiety or depression, a dietitian or nutritionist who can give them support in eating, and a therapist or counselor,” Boyer said.
There are four different types of treatment processes that range in intensity, she explained.
“Outpatient is the least restrictive,” Boyer said. “It allows the person to live their normal life, essentially, and attend appointments weekly to help them get better.”
She described the next level as an “intensive outpatient program,” where the patient meets with various members of their team usually three times a week and gets help from their peers while still staying at home.
The third level, Boyer explained, is “partial hospitalization,” where they spend each day in treatment but get to go home with their family at night.
The final and most intensive form of treatment for an eating disorder is a residential treatment, Boyer said.
“Residential is treatment that happens away from someone’s home, where they can get all of the services of the less intensive methods, with 24/7 monitoring from professionals,” she explained.
Outside of the treatment given by specialists, it’s important to have support from peers, friends and family, Boyer said.
If someone suspects a friend has an eating disorder, she explained that it’s best to talk to that person directly first and then contact the school counselor.
High school counselor Carrie Washburn said the school takes a similar approach when trying to help students with eating disorders.
“If a friend knows about someone who has an eating disorder, we work with the friend to help the person to feel more comfortable,” she explained.
In order to try to help students who might be suffering from a body image related issue, Washburn said, she advises a student-run Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness club.
Washburn added that there were approximately 20 students at the first meeting.
“It’s about providing support,” she said
In addition to the new club, Washburn explained that the school has taken steps toward becoming more educated on the issues of eating disorders so that they can help as many struggling students as possible.
“We help bridge conversation with family,” Washburn explained. “We help connect them with the experts they need, like professional counselors and doctors.”
Boyer said that middle school and high school age students who have supportive people around them are much more likely to ask for help than college students and other people who are on their own.
It’s important to recognize that recovery is a process, Monson said. She explained that no eating disorder recovery is the same, so it can all be trial and error to find what works for each person.
“It takes time and is seldom logical or linear,” she added.
Monson also noted that when someone is trying to give support to a friend with an eating disorder, they have to accept all of their limitations.
“You can’t make him or her want help,” she said.
There are a lot of ways someone can help support a person with an eating disorder, Monson said. She suggested complementing their strengths that have nothing to do with appearance or food and planning activities for after meal times that help redirect focus away from food.
“Once you know someone has an eating disorder, do your best to treat them like you always have, like a friend, instead of someone who is sick,” Boyer said.