Invisible Eating Disorders
T.W. this article discusses eating disorders
Lauren Deveney provides an open experience of her eating disorder, OSFED, and how a Doctor at the University of Edinburgh was unaware as to what this actually was. This is a call to action for raising awareness around, and getting rid, of the stigmatisation attached to eating disorders.
Description: Under the scrutiny of the modern world and how we look at ourselves not truly for who we are but as we feel others look at us. We objectify ourselves and become detached from the self.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed with an eating disorder called OSFED, which stands for Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. After suffering from the illness for over half of my life, I was relieved to have finally been given a name for what I was experiencing. For me, this made the illness a physical, tangible thing which was easier to comprehend and manage.
OSFED, previously EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), began as a category of eating disorders which did not necessarily fit the specifications of the better known illnesses such as anorexia or bulimia. Therefore, there has been little research on this category of eating disorder, with many sufferers being diagnosed with OSFED simply because there is no other clear diagnosis available. Due to this lack of refinement, it took almost ten years of having a seriously bad relationship with food for me to be officially diagnosed. I was not diagnosed until I saw a counsellor at University, who I spoke to about my restrictive and obsessive habits when it came to food. Despite being given this generalised diagnosis, I was not aware of the stigmatisation and ignorance I would later encounter on my journey to recovery.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, with approximately 1.25 million people in the UK suffering from disordered eating (Source: BEAT). Despite the statistics revealing that it is not exactly an uncommon illness, I encountered a surprising stigma in society and insufficient knowledge from medical professionals. Granted, OSFED is not exactly a ‘well known’ eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, but it is one of the most common. It is a tricky illness, characterised by all the same symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and restrictive intake disorder, but for some reason the sufferer’s BMI remains steady. Therefore, as there are often no apparent physical signs of weight loss, I found people struggled to take my diagnosis seriously.
Recently, I spoke to a doctor from my University who asked me if I had anorexia or bulimia. I explained I had neither but experienced aspects of both, and that I had been diagnosed with OSFED. From his response, it was clear to me then that he actually had no idea what OSFED was. I was in disbelief. How could this doctor not be aware of the illness that has taken over my entire life? An illness that has caused me to do irreparable damage to my body and my mental health over so many years. I was so overwhelmed with so many emotions from anger to complete hopelessness.
Illnesses such as OSFED and BED (Binge Eating Disorder) account for almost half of all eating disorders. With anorexia making up 10%, and bulimia making up 40%. It strikes me then, as to why OSFED is not as widely recognised or taken as seriously as other eating disorders? Is it the long standing issue of medicine overlooking mental illnesses in favour of physical ones? Indeed, it was only when I had lost almost a stone in weight that I was officially diagnosed by my doctor noticing a physical problem in my body. After considering this question, I came to the conclusion that there really was no good enough answer or ‘excuse’ for not recognising this deadly illness, whether the signs are physically noticeable or not; especially as a medical professional at a University where the majority of students are young adults, and so fall under the ‘at risk’ category for developing eating disorders.
I argue then, that this is not an individual problem, but an institutional one. The only way forward to combat, what I will call DESI (Disordered Eating Stigma and Ignorance), is education. Starting at the root of the problem, medical professionals need to be better equipped to deal with patients suffering from disordered eating. In addition to this, we need to normalise this illness in society and the media, starting by having difficult conversations about DESI with family and friends before turning to the wider picture. I know personally I have encountered friends and loved ones who have not understood the full extent of DESI until I have sat down with them and spoken about my personal experiences and my overwhelming feelings of shame in relation to food and my body image.
Charities, such as Beat, work fervently to provide critical support through helplines and online chat rooms for sufferers who are in desperate need, as well as raise money for life saving research. Recently, there has been an increase in media attention and coverage in regards to eating disorders. Many mainstream celebrities have revealed their struggles with body image and disordered eating, such as actor Sophie Turner who recently opened up about her battle with body dysmorphia. It has come to my attention too, that many celebrities are wanting to openly speak out about their experience with disordered eating. Sportsman and television personality Freddie Flintoff, along with actor Christopher Eccleston, have both recently released raw and heart wrenching documentaries in which they open up about their experience with disordered eating. One thing which was synonymous with both documentaries, was the fact that they were each working towards battling the ingrained stigma of eating disorders in contemporary society. The fact that they both identify as men is also significant, as previously men have been forgotten about in much of the discourse surrounding eating disorders. Whilst it is true that the majority of sufferers are women, men account for approximately 25% of eating disorder cases (Source: BEAT).
However, throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, Beat has seen a staggering increase in demand for their services. Should one charity really have to carry this burden on their own with minimal assistance from the UK government? Perhaps then, we should look to the government to better equip the NHS with more specialist facilities for those with eating disorders. These facilities may include; more specialist medical centres in addition to the few present already, more trained professionals specialising in eating disorders, and inclusive access to these facilities for all. I received my referral to one of these specialist centres 10 months ago and I still have not been seen. This has forced my family to set aside hundreds of pounds for counselling, which a lot of people do not have access to and should not have to pay. Looking at the wider issue, does this ultimately come down to medicine’s continuous failure to support those suffering from all mental disorders? Historically, mental illness has been received by society with prejudice, judgement and ignorance. In a sense then, this failure from professionals, such as employers and the doctor I personally encountered, to recognise eating disorders as a serious mentally and physically debilitating illness, really is not that surprising.
Therefore, we need to initiate discussions surrounding eating disorders and DESI in order to slowly break down the barriers of stigmatisation and peel away the layers of shame which shroud this illness. I would like to offer my ever enduring appreciation to those at my University which have offered their continued help and support, along with my friends and family.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a potential eating disorder, here are some useful resources;
Samaritans helpline- 116 123
Edinburgh Crisis Centre- 0808 801 0414
Sources- The Priory Group, https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
Lauren Deveney is a Third Year Ancient History student at Edinburgh University