Twenty years-ago it seemed like every family in the country was struggling with a teenager suffering from an “eating disorder”. In recent years this serious social, mental health, psychological, and medical problem seems to be garnering a lot less attention. Did we lick it, or have we just stopped talking about it?
Most people think that anorexia is a relatively modern disorder caused by demanding parents and peers in a narcissistic culture. However, the term “anorexia nervosa” was coined in 1873 by William Gull, MD, a London physician. The disorder did not attract widespread public attention until the death of Karen Carpenter in 1983. Karen was a world-renowned singer who died from anorexia at the age of 32 and brought eating disorders into the media spotlight. Parents then started to notice the signs and psychotherapists began to offer early forms of treatment.
Although anorexia has currently faded somewhat from the media spotlight, the disorder still vexes a large portion of the American population. According to the National Eating Disorder Association:
- At least 30 million people of all ages and genders will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime in the U.S.
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
- At least one person dies every hour from an eating disorder in the U.S.
Why Less Attention
As more effective therapies developed, and society in general became more familiar with the disorder, the media frenzy died down and our attention span was again tested by the complacency our society prefers. Social workers warn us, however, that as our old complacency sets in, and we prefer not to see problems that we fear reflect poorly on our parenting skills, we are again tending to ignore the early warning signs of this most dangerous disorder.
The following lengthy list of behaviors, taken alone and in combination, should be considered warning signs of eating disorders:
- Unexplained persistent weight loss
- Fixation on weight
- Persistent restriction of energy intake
- Skipping meals
- Dramatic changes in normal eating patterns like becoming a “vegan” or cutting out all carbohydrates
- Obsession with low-fat foods
- Becoming socially withdrawn
- Avoiding social events involving food
- Intolerance of cold
- Loss of menstruation
- Low blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
Parents tend to overlook these behaviors not only because they are unaware of the diagnosis but also because they have been unfairly blamed for their children developing anorexia. It was once believed that adolescents developed anorexia due to dysfunctional family environments. However, we now know that eating disorders are caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and temperamental factors. Parents are not to blame when their children develop eating disorders and can be incredible sources of support in their children's healing journeys.
Family-based treatment known as the Maudsley method has been developed by Christopher Dare and colleagues at Maudsley Hospital in London, England. In short, FBT simply posits that:
- The family, when alert to the warning signs above, can be effective diagnosticians and initiate early treatment for eating disorders.
- When coached, parents can learn to “refeed” their child at the early stages of the disorder.
- Parents can gradually transition control of eating back to the adolescent after weight has been restored.
- Parents can learn exactly when to “step back” and empower the adolescent to “self-administer”.
- Finally, parents can judge more accurately when the adolescent is able to maintain their weight on their own.
Participate - Don’t Withdraw
Social workers tell us that the key to treating eating disorders is early diagnosis and active, positive participation in the patient’s recovery. Guilt and fear have no place in the therapy, and families are not the cause. They can be the cure.