Eating disorders present a huge problem for both men and women across Australia, and it's an issue that is often kept a closely-guarded secret by sufferers. This week, September 1 to 7, 2008 marks National Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week which aims to raise awareness of the health-threatening conditions.
Health caught up with Julie Thomson of The Butterfly Foundation, a community-based charity that supports sufferers and their carers, to find out more about the subject.
How big a problem are eating disorders in Australia?
Eating disorders are an enormous problem that do not receive the funding or attention they deserve. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with 20 percent of people being clinically diagnosed dying from the illness.
How has the issue changed in recent years?
In recent years the average age of onset is now 14 years where it was 16. It is now also not uncommon for children under the age of 10 to be suffering from an eating disorder and requiring in-patient care. We would like to think that there have also been some changes for the better, relating to the fact that there is more information and awareness in the community about eating disorders, which we hope means that more people are coming forward to access help in a timely manner.
What are the most common disorders? And how do they arise?
There are four types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified. They arise due to a number of factors including a history of mental illness in one's family, low self-esteem, engaging in persistent and restrictive dieting and difficulties coping with or handling challenges in life such relationship concerns and stress. The onset of the illness is different for every person, but the highest risk factor is low self-esteem combined with punitive dieting.
There is a perception that it is a problem predominantly in teenage girls is this the case?
In general eating disorders have their onset in adolescence, however there are becoming more exceptions to this with children and older people being diagnosed as well. While eating disorders are chiefly experienced by women, the instances of men experiencing the illness are significantly on the rise.
What proportion of sufferers are male?
It is estimated that between two and three percent of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are male, but due to the lack of funding for research in this area we are not certain and believe the figure could be much higher.
Do you find men are more reluctant to seek help?
Men are usually more reluctant to seek help for all medical problems, not just eating disorders. When the issue they are experiencing is perceived as being so female dominated, however, this can make seeking help even harder.
What are the telltale signs that someone is suffering?
There are many warning signs including, but not limited to, dramatic weight loss, refusal to eat in front of others, wearing baggy clothing, constantly being on a diet, intensely low self-esteem, expressing fear of or anxiety about food, being obsessed with the nutritional and caloric content of food, and over-exercising.
Where should someone turn for help?
The best place is their GP or state-based eating disorder service. Details are in the "Where to Go for Help" section of The Butterfly Foundation website .