Eating Disorders: A Mental Health Matter

Photo credit: Camille Lombard[br]The social ill of disregarding mental illnesses as severe issues of health continues to enforce the wrongful stigma that often surrounds mental well-being. Lamia Tadjine explains why.[br]LIKE our bodies often do, our minds falter, but the common practice of disassociating the mind when addressing overall health, and the indifference towards mental illness in society today makes the battle for sufferers far greater, and the journey for change far more problematic.It’s quite common that the effects of mental illnesses impact the physical body and mirror the turmoil being experienced by the mind. The likes of depressive disorders cause a 67% increase in death from heart disease, while the behavioural disorder schizophrenia is associated with double the risk in death from heart issues also. Although these disorders clearly have adverse effects on physical health, the negative changes are all concerned with the internal body as very few signs of deterioration are externally presented, and the extent of the bad impact on physical health is not easily visible. The physical effects of eating disorders however, externally manifest themselves in a much more noticeable manner.Up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders with an estimated 400 new cases emerging each year. Due to the nature of eating disorders however, many cases go unreported as sufferers often avoid disclosing any information about their illness. The causes of eating disorders are multifaceted, and include biological, psychological and social factors. It’s quite common therefore, for one to develop an eating disorder after going through a serious life change.UCD chaplain and student adviser Gillian Kingston believes that people and often students, develop eating disorders as a way of trying to regain control during times where they feel helpless and stressed, a fact which is very much applicable to hectic college life. “one thing which we see is that people who have gone through some sort of traumatic life event, over which they have had no control attempt to regain control through food, because one thing you can control is what you eat”.Another cause that Kingston suggested was that these disorders develop due to negative social influence driven by the media, as outlets incessantly push their personal agenda of ‘the ideal body type’ on society.Through the emergence of social media, our constant subjection to these esteem wrecking images and ideals of beauty has become a momentous problem with impressionable teens being at the heart of the negative influence. University students are increasingly vulnerable to these influences, having to deal with such great academic and social transitions, all the while attempting to meet various standards to achieve social acceptance within their new school community. Low self-esteem has become almost inevitable for many, with eating disorders increasing in recent years due to this negative societal influence.There is a growing body of research that shows the media plays a part in the development of eating disorder symptoms - particularly in adolescents and young people. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said much of the increase is down to social pressure made worse by online images "Although biological and genetic factors play an important role in the development of eating disorders, psychological and social factors are also significant.”Although the facts seem harrowingly bleak, Kingston has hope “Over the past three or four years I’ve seen a healthy increase in people standing up for body diversity” she said.Kingston continued “certainly in the bible there would be a positive thing about bodies, bodies are good, the body does enormous good. From a Christian point of view we were created body, mind and spirit and that god created us in his own image, so that glorifies the human form, and from that point of view the body is sacred.”The common misconception that eating disorders only affect young females is grossly untrue, a general misunderstanding that Kingston believes to be very damaging “I think that constant reiteration of this fact is dangerous because it also affects young men and older people.”Roisin Ni Mhara, Students’ Union Welfare Officer also believes this to be very damaging “It’s a problem everywhere that doesn’t just affect young people or girls specifically and people need to realise that. They also need to know that there are other eating disorders like purging and body dysmorphic disorder not just the regular triad of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders”.With a background in midwifery, O’Mara has a good medical grasp on various disorders and how they affect people “The extent to which these disorders affect people is a funny one to gauge. Because of the nature of these disorders people don’t disclose anything, or even realise that they have them”.With most eating disorders being described as nothing more than a set of routines or habits, the severe effects that they have on the body does not reflect their simplistic definition. The behaviours are incorporated into the sufferer’s daily life, often leading to irreparable damage to the body and nervous system.Some eating disorders also cause problems with perception, and when our perception is our reality, having a distorted view of how we look is dangerous. A recent study by the University of Colorado found that the brain processes of women with anorexia and bulimia nervosa morph, allowing them to override their urge to consume food which over time, can be life-threatening if not treated.O’Mara’s views on the supports offered by UCD are positive however, like many she believes a lot more can be done “The supports we currently have are good, the counsellors are fantastic and do the absolute best they can. But I do think that the mental health services need to be reviewed, and they are being reviewed because I don’t think the status quo is working. We just haven’t quite hit the right formula yet”Paul Kelly, head of UCD counselling services also shares the same view on the supports UCD has to offer “UCD, in common with other third level institutions in Ireland, has experienced a significant increase in demand for counselling services over the past decade” he said.Kelly believes that the significant rise in the need for counselling services is related to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. “This crisis also affected the ability of public services to increase support to meet the growing demand and this has affected the provision of all mental health services, including those at third level institutions” Kelly added.The growing demand for mental health services in all third level institutions can’t be ignored. A lot more needs to be done to properly aid students who suffer from an eating disorder or any other form of mental illnesses.