It’s something that affects the world’s entire population. Despite the media’s stereotypical image of the young white woman being the illness’s most common victim, no matter your age, gender, ethnicity or geographic location, eating disorders can impact anyone and everyone.
“It’s not a choice… This isn’t something you just wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to have an eating disorder’,” says Helen Clark, a senior social worker with the Eating Disorders Outreach Program at Bluewater Health. “It’s important to externalize the illness away from the person… see the person, treat the illness.”
Eating Disorder Awareness Week is recognized annually from Feb. 4 to 10, and this year’s theme promotes the message that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’.
Clark, who has been working in the field for a number of years, said in recent history she’s seen more men coming forward for treatment. Historically, there was a common misconception that thin Caucasian teenage girls are the demographic impacted most, but that’s not true, she said. There are many adults and males who suffer from the mental illness, but their stories aren’t often told.
“There is perhaps a public perception that there is a stereotypical image of someone who has an eating disorder,” Clark said, adding you can’t simply look at someone and know if they have an eating disorder. It’s often an invisible illness, and it’s directly related to an individual’s mental health.
Clark also said it seems eating disorders are more prevalent than before, but it’s difficult to say if there’s been an increase in cases, or if more people are becoming aware and open to discussion.
“I think prevalence is hidden… with a lot of other mental health issues, eating disorders are becoming a little bit more in the scope of people’s awareness, but I still think we have a long way to go,” Clark said.
She said when it comes to the media, Canadians need to be critical thinkers of the messages they receive. But that’s easier said than done, especially with social media permeating every aspect of modern life.
“It’s a very hard time to grow up,” she said. “The strive for thinness and the value for thinness, there’s been a heightened impact by that, and we have stronger and stronger messaging that in order to be likable, successful… you have to be thin.”
Clark said their program helps people of all ages, when in previous years it was focused on youth. They also focus on family-based health restoration, including family physicians and encouraging patterned eating at home.
“Family is huge in terms of recovery,” she said. “An eating disorder affects the whole family.”
Clark said the key to getting better is early identification and promoting self-love and self-acceptance. A recent movement on social media has urged people to love their bodies for their unique attributes. But if someone is worried a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, a gentle approach that’s unassuming is important.
It’s a slippery slope, and Clark said for some people, it can spiral from trying to lose a few pounds to experiencing long-term consequences. She said it’s important to develop a healthy relationship with food. It’s a part of our social make-up and daily lives.
She said they work to teach people that there are no good or bad foods, that food is not the enemy but the medicine, and self-acceptance. The earlier one can get on the road to recovery, the better the chance is for full and lasting recovery.
“It’s really challenging if someone is afraid of their weight, afraid of their body,” she said. “Treatment is challenging, but recovery is possible.”
Bluewater Health has an Eating Disorder Outreach Program that is accessible to the community and funded by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. They have a barrier free referral system. You can contact them by calling 519-464-4400, ext. 5217.