On the Teen Scene:
Eating Disorders Require Medical Attention
Though eating disorders can affect individuals of both genders at any age, they occur most commonly occur in young people – particularly teenage girls and young women.
According to the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, about 24 million Americans – and as many as 70 million people around the world – have been affected by disordered eating. And statistics that were collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicated that 90 percent of these cases involve girls and women between the ages of 12 and 25.
In her book Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies, Dr. Margo Maine noted that young girls are become especially prone to exhibit unhealthy weight-related attitudes and behaviors:
- Nine percent of 9-year-olds admit to having vomited in an attempt to lose weight.
- Forty-two percent of first-, second-, and third-grade girls say they want to be thinner.
- Fifty-three percent of 13-year-old girls say they are unhappy with their bodies.
- Seventy-eight percent of 18-year-old girls say they are unhappy with their bodies.
Eating disorders have also been described as among deadliest of all mental illnesses, with mortality rates as high as 20 percent in some circumstances, and an impact so severe that some “survivors” can expect to die decades earlier than similarly aged individuals who were never afflicted.
For example, a July 17, 2008, article in Canada’s National Post newspaper reported on a University of British Columbia study that revealed that the life expectancy of women who develop anorexia during their teens can be as much as 25 years than the national average.
Complex Causes and Effects
Eating disorders are complex psychological conditions that are difficult to overcome without effective professional treatment – and in the cases of young sufferers, the physical and emotional toll taken by these conditions can be particularly devastating.
In cases of bulimia, some people are able to binge and purge in relative secret for decades or more, wreaking considerable damage on their bodies. Many bulimics maintain an outward appearance of health, but their low self-esteem and continued purges can drive them into physical disrepair and emotional instability. For example, some studies have shown the bulimic girls are at increased risk of engaging in other dangerous behaviors, ranging from shoplifting to unsafe sex to the abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Physically, continued purging can upset the body’s delicate balance of essential chemicals – which, in turn, can lead to fatigue, seizure, abnormal heartbeat and lost bone density. Self-induced vomiting can damage the stomach and esophagus, and can cause tooth enamel erosion, skin rashes, broken blood vessels, and irregular (or nonexistent) menstruation.
As their disordered eating habits become more severe, sufferers often become secretive, isolated, and withdrawn from family and friends – actions that can cause underlying mental disorders or emotional conditions to worsen.
In cases of adolescents with eating disorders, the sooner a patient enters treatment, the greater the likelihood of success. Most effective treatment plans involve medical, psychological, and social components, and include a variety of therapeutic options, including the following:
- Individual therapy – A qualified therapist can help a recovering individual explore the emotions and compulsions that led to his self-destructive behaviors, and can help him design strategies to avoid or overcome these “triggers” in the future.
- Group therapy – Because anorexia can affect an individual’s social development, group therapies can help patients to reconnect with others as well as benefit from the sharing of successes and failures. However, experts advise that for some anorexics, group situations can be counterproductive, devolving into competitions over who is thinner.
- Family therapy – Especially effective for adolescent patients who are still living with their parents, family therapy allows those closest to the anorexic individual to participate in the recovery process, and can be particularly useful in cases where family tensions may have contributed to the development of the disorder.
- Support groups & aftercare programs – Groups such as Eating Disorders Anonymous and Anorexics and Bulimic Anonymous incorporate the 12-Step philosophy to help ensure continued recovery.
Though disordered eating can have devastating results, with effective treatment and appropriate aftercare an afflicted individual can successfully return to (and maintain) a healthy weight while pursuing a happy life.