Understanding Eating Disorders: The Most Misunderstood Illness

February 24th to March 1st 2020 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Eating disorders are often misunderstood illnesses. This is due to the misconception that eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa, are lifestyle choices. However, these disorders are serious, biologically based and often associated with fatal illnesses that are related to critical disturbances in people's eating habits, thoughts, and emotions. At least one individual dies as a direct result from an eating disorder every 62 minutes, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Of all mental health disorders, eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate and are only surpassed by opioid addiction. Furthermore, eating disorders can affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, and genders. It is estimated that in the United States alone, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from eating disorders at some point in their lives.

"The staggering statistics of the prevalence of eating disorders and the high fatality rate reinforce the critical importance of integrated care to ensure that physical and mental illnesses are diagnosed and treated. Because of the serious consequences of disordered eating, awareness needs to be raised and the availability of resources need to be ensured," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc.

Researchers are discovering that eating disorders are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. It's important to note that people with eating disorders are at a higher risk for suicide and medical complications in addition to often having other mental health disorders (such as anxiety or an impulse control disorder) or having problems with substance use. Complications that can occur from an eating disorder include a reduction of bone density, an abnormally slow heart rate, severe dehydration, hair loss, tooth decay, heart disease, and kidney disease. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, a complete recovery is possible through individually tailored treatment plans that include medications, psychotherapy, and nutritional counseling.

A directory of NJAMHAA member providers of mental healthcare and substance use disorder treatment services is available at www.njamhaa.org.

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