Deadly Discrimination

January 12, 2021

Mental illness is not a universally understood phrase. These diseases don’t surface in a cough or sprained limb. They live in the shadows, there, sometimes out of view, but ultimately intangible.

Despite their invisible nature, World Psychiatry reveals that one person an hour dies from an eating disorder, making it the most lethal mental illness.

Many of these fatal cases go undiagnosed.

Liz Motta, the Director of Education and Resources for The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, finds that the invalid messages society receives about eating disorders allows many to go unchecked.

“We know through research that eating disorders do not discriminate, yet until the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, one of the mandatory criteria for anorexia nervosa was having a loss of amenorrhea [a menstrual cycle],” Motta said. “This prevented men, a susceptible demographic, from being diagnosed.” 

Despite the manual’s previous assumptions, the National Eating Disorder Association states that of the 28.8 million eating disorder cases in the U.S., one-third affect cisgender men. 

Gender doesn’t grant men immunity from societal pressures, but it does serve as an obstacle to seeking psychological treatment. 

“I think guys today feel so much shame in seeking out help,” said Ben Jacobs*, a 14-year-old in recovery from anorexia. “There is a constant pressure to be strong, and so we hide our feelings.”

The same study showed that people of color and LGBTQ+ community members were more likely to develop certain eating disorders than those with a heterosexual or Caucasian background.

Marginalized demographics carry the weight of systemic injustice from birth, facing unprecedented battles every day. This extra stress and emotional pressure place them at a higher risk for eating disorders and other mental illnesses. 

“What we know is that those behaviors regarding food and body are the symptoms, driven by trauma, anxiety, depression, or other factors,” Motta said.  

Like many other illnesses, eating disorders also can be passed on through genetics. According to Eating Disorder Hope, a foundation focused on education, having a relative with an eating disorder can make you 7-12 times more likely to develop behaviors.

They are not a choice but a product of circumstance. 

“Since I was little, my mom struggled with her own eating habits. She’d skip meals or slowly stop eating certain food groups,” Jacobs said. “Obviously, my eating disorder wasn’t her fault, but we’re family; it makes sense that we have some of the same issues.”

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