From Illness to Activist

Body image

An estimated 8 million Americans have an eating disorder – seven million women and one million men. Shockingly, 95% are between the ages of 12 and 25! So how does one develop such a disorder and is it truly a disease or is it a diet choice?

Do Something spoke to Chelsey Shirrell, 21, who is recovering from an eating disorder and has taken it upon herself to educate the public.  

Chelsey’s disorder started after overhearing a relatively common conversation. “I was in 7th grade, and over heard a bunch of "popular" and skinny girls talking about how fat they were. I went home and looked in the mirror and hated myself. I began to diet and decrease my calories. I made dance team freshman year of high school and wanted to look great in my dance team outfits, so I decreased my calorie intake to practically nothing, began making myself throw up, and dropped a ton of weight.”

Chelsey is one of millions of young American women who suffer from the psychiatric illnesses anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders. Her experience drove her to take action to bring attention to the issues of eating disorders, which are far too often swept under the rug and/or seen as diet choices, as opposed to the mental conditions that they actually are. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

“It's important to discuss eating disorders because no one will. You see commercials for fighting cancer, and heart disease, but not eating disorders.” Chelsey says. “Parents are not educated enough to know the signs in their children, and when someone heads down the path of an eating disorder there's a chance they will never get out.”

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that only 30- 40% of anorexics will ever fully recover, 5-10% will die within 10 years of contracting the disease and 18-20% will be dead after 20 years.

So how do eating disorders begin and how are they treated?

An eating disorder can begin quite innocently enough. Many teens are self-conscious about their bodies. This can be especially true when they are going through puberty, and undergo dramatic physical changes and face new social pressures. Unfortunately, for a growing proportion of kids and teens, that concern can grow into an obsession that can become an eating disorder.

While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are most often about much more than food.

People with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. For some, dieting, binging, and purging may begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of one’s life, but ultimately, these behaviors will damage a person’s physical and emotional health, self-esteem, and sense of competence and control.

The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. The exact treatment needs of each individual will vary. It is important for individuals struggling with an eating disorder to find a health professional they trust to help coordinate and oversee their care, but statistics show that only one in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment. This may be due in part to the stigma attached to the disorders but surely this in the lack of health insurance options plays a role as well.

“Health insurance does not cover enough of the expenses for eating disorder victims. Recovery is too expensive to pay without insurance,” Chelsey commented.

Most health insurance companies do not typically cover the cost of treating eating disorders. Treatment of an eating disorder in the US ranges from $500 per day to $2,000 per day, and the average cost for a month of inpatient treatment is $30,000. It is estimated that individuals with eating disorders need anywhere from 3 – 6 months of inpatient care. The cost of outpatient treatment, including therapy and medical monitoring, can extend to $100,000 or more. In short, if you’re not wealthy, chances are you can’t afford treatment for these debilitating disorders.

Chelsey feels strongly that education is key. People must first be informed that eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses — not choices — and it’s important to recognize the pressures, attitudes and behaviors that shape the disorder.

Chelsey claims that eating disorders “kill at least 10% of their victims, and that's not counting the people that die from heart disease, cancer, and depression due to their eating disorders. Eating disorders can affect anyone, any age, any sex, any race, any social class. It's time that people talk about eating disorders and ways to help individuals that can't find help.”

And that’s exactly what Chelsey is doing with her Spread the Word project! Chelsey started her efforts by organizing an awareness campaign in her town. She’s handed out flyers in foot traffic-heavy areas, has asked businesses to display posters and is even working on a jeans drive that will promote a healthy self image.

“Instead of having jeans that you wear on skinny days, and jeans you wear on fat days, just wear what you're comfortable in. Be happy with your body, and get rid of jeans that do not fit.”

The National Eating Disorders Association warns that prevention efforts will fail if they concentrate solely on warning the public about the signs, symptoms, and dangers of eating disorders. The organization insists that effective prevention programs must also address the cultural obsession with slenderness as a physical, psychological, and moral issue. In addition, the media and males play important roles in prevention; the objectification and other forms of mistreatment of women by others contribute directly to two underlying features of an eating disorder: obsession with appearance and shame of one`s body.

With this is mind, the company’s aim for 2009’s NEDAwareness Week is to ultimately prevent eating disorders and body image issues while reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and improving access to treatment.

Source: National Eating Disorder Association