On June 3rd, 2013, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden held the National Conference on Mental Health to bring greater awareness to issues surrounding mental health in the United States. President Obama acknowledged that while mental health advocates continue to speak out, there is still great shame and silence surrounding the issue. Compared to physical illness and disease, open discussion of mental illness continues to carry stigma.
“We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives… We know help is available, and yet, as a society, we often think about mental health differently than other forms of health. You see commercials on TV about a whole array of physical health issues, some of them very personal. And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions.”- President Obama
Public perception of mental illness continues to be quite different than toward other illnesses. One of the difficulties for those struggling with an eating disorder can be reactions from others who don’t understand the complexity of the illness. Just as someone suffering from depression may be told to “just stop being sad.” a person with anorexia can’t always “just eat something.” A person with binge eating disorder can’t “just stop eating.” A person with bulimia can’t “just stop purging.” Eating disorders are complex, biologically based illnesses. As difficult as it is to understand, eating disorders are not about food, making this mental illness difficult to treat due to the wide range of factors and complexities that impact each affected individual.
“The brain is a body part too; we just know less about it. And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment; we’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help, and we need to see to it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu, that they have that same attitude when it comes to their mental health.” – President Obama
With many mental illnesses, we may see signs or symptoms in individuals but are afraid to discuss them for fear of a negative reaction or denial. If you saw a friend or loved one with an untreated visible physical ailment, chances are you wouldn’t hesitate to express your concern. Having that conversation with someone about a suspected eating disorder, however, is usually avoided. It’s time to start the dialogue.
Just as we need to work on eradicating the embarrassment of seeking help for treatment of mental illnesses like eating disorders, we must also continue education efforts about symptoms and warning signs. Let’s follow the initiatives from the National Conference on Mental Health and the tireless efforts of activists and break the stigma of mental illness- including eating disorders. Recovery is possible.
We need to have these difficult conversations and ask the questions that others may only whisper.