The theme for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 26-March 4) is Let’s Get Real, and NOW is the time to expand the conversation about not only eating disorders, but the impact eating disorders have on American teenagers. Mental illness takes a devastating toll on the individual who is suffering and on the family or loved one that is impacted. Classified as a mental illness, eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa, carry the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition.
Eating disorders affect an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. at some point in their lives. Adolescents are at a higher risk, as the most common age for onset of eating disorders is 12-25, and research shows that 3.8% of this group will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. It is estimated that 1% of adolescent females suffer from anorexia and have a mortality rate 12 times higher than that of those of the same age without the disorder.
What is the cause of adolescent eating disorders?
In a culture full of complicated relationships with food, exercise, and appearance, an unhealthy body image puts today’s teens at an increased risk for both eating disorders, disordered eating, and unhealthy weight-control behaviors. Recent studies show that over 50% of adolescent females are dissatisfied with their bodies.
Dieting has been linked to an increased risk of eating disorders, as research shows that girls age 14-15 who severely restricted their energy intake and skipped meals were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Dieting also increases weight gain and binge eating in adolescents.
Lack of Family Meals
Often associated with healthier diets, family meals provide an opportunity for model behavior by parents, increased interaction for teenagers and families, and a chance to address food issues as they arise. Family meals eaten together on most days, lessen the risk of purging behaviors, binge eating, and frequent dieting.
Weight Talk and Teasing
Research shows weight talk by parents about their dieting or to their children has adverse effects and increases the chances of engagement in dieting, unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and binge eating. Over 40% of adolescents who are overweight experience weight teasing by peers or family members, causing a significant increase in unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eating.
Adolescents will often seek encouragement and support for their eating disorders in the online community. Online sites such as “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” encourage disordered behavior for anorexia and bulimia, and will often push the individual to go further in their behavior. These types of online communities are visited by 13% of female teenagers, a number that triples for those who are already engaged in eating disorder behaviors.
How do you treat adolescent eating disorders?
Adolescents CAN recover from their eating disorders, the key is early assessment, proper diagnosis, and a comprehensive treatment approach. At Selah House, we use a therapeutic approach to guide the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the recovery process. Our therapists work with females, ages 15-18, to develop a treatment plan customized to meet their specific needs and goals. We utilize evidence-based treatment to address and deal with the underlying issues of their eating disorder and support long-term recovery. Our unique step-down process and multi-disciplinary therapies provide an optimum path for treatment. In addition to individual and group therapy sessions, the girls can continue their education while in our program with an individualized education plan.
Tom Jewell, our Educational Coordinator, serves as the liaison between the student, family and their school, whether that is a public school, private school, or home school scenario. He works with whoever is the appropriate contact for the client’s school such as the guidance counselor, or individual teacher on getting work back and forth between student and teacher.
“The biggest benefit to continuing education for the girls is that it keeps them on track. It gives them the opportunity to re-enter school after treatment without feeling overwhelmed. Missing school can be added stress for many of these clients, and this alleviates that as they focus on their recovery,” says Tom.
As a public educator for 33 years, Tom knows the importance of education. He has classroom time four days per week for two hours each day with the girls. During this time, he supervises them as they work on assignments and projects, and administers tests and quizzes as needed by their school. He is also available to provide tutoring as needed. Before discharge, he gives a summary of where they are in their schoolwork to help as they re-enter the classroom.
How is the family involved in eating disorder treatment?
Selah House considers the family to be a critical component of the healing process for teens. Since eating disorders strongly impact family functioning, we put great emphasis on family therapy throughout treatment. Family involvement includes electronic or phone therapy sessions each week, facilitated by the client’s family therapist.
Additionally, Selah provides Intensive Family Therapy Days during treatment to allow families to come to the facility and work intensively with their daughter on the underlying issues of her eating disorder. This time is facilitated by one of our family therapists who is assigned to each family and works with them throughout treatment.
Unlike many things we see in our society, eating disorders are not a fad or phase. They pose severe effects on health, productivity, and family relationships. It is important to remember that early intervention will increase the likelihood of a full recovery and ongoing support from the family is vital.
“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” – Proverbs 31:30