It’s not hard to find statistics on the Internet about eating disorders – but it is hard to find statistics that mean something to anyone who might be in the grip of an eating disorder, or to people who might be worried that a friend or family member might have an eating disorder. The information they are looking for is not just “I’m not alone”; it is also “what do I do about it?” and “how can I get help without others finding out?”.
That is because, for many people with an eating disorder, whether anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or any other form or disordered-eating, a major part of the illness is a need to keep it secret. Finding reasons to eat alone (which means not eating alone) or not to eat when others are eating (perhaps saying they have already eaten and so aren’t hungry) provides them with the privacy to hide their illness as well as a method for staying in control. It is another unjust twist in this illness that makes people hope others will have gone public on their behalf so they can benefit without disclosing any information themselves.
As for the statistics, is it reassuring, or worrying, to know that the number of people with an eating disorder only reflects known cases. In this context many people are not open about it and so won’t be counted in the stats? Does it help to know that the majority are young women (typically between the ages of 14 and 25) when you are an older woman (who might have had the illness for decades or weeks) or, indeed, a boy or man (roughly 10 per cent of all cases will be men)?
From a therapist’s point of view, the only statistic that matters is the person he or she is with at the time. To a therapist, this is not a numbers game; it is a serious issue with deep underlying causes, affecting that one person in the clinic right now.The therapist knows it can be overcome with therapy; his or her role is to find the best form of therapy for each individual. Everyone is different so, although there will be similarities in the generalities, the precise cause of the illness will be different for each person; the form of therapy will be specific to each person; the length of time the therapy will last will be specific to each person.
Trawling the web for facts is, however, important as it often indicates that the person looking realises that he or she needs professional help and support – and wants it. So, a second search through the web is often for information on eating disorder symptoms (for reassurance and confirmation) and then for an eating disorder clinic or a counsellor/therapist specialising in eating disorders. As always, and regardless of the underlying issue, it is important to choose a therapist who is well qualified and whose work follows professional guidelines – and who you can trust with your innermost thoughts, feelings and fears.
Our next post will look at the symptoms of eating disorders and the therapies that are most effective at helping people overcome their disordered-eating.