February 05, 2020

Let’s Learn From Taylor Swift and Talk About Eating Disorders - Dr. O'Melia

by Anne Marie O’Melia, MD

Prior to the opioid crisis, eating disorders were the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. One sobering statistic: Young people ages 15-24 with anorexia are 10 times more likely to die than their same-aged peers.

Other data show that more than 70 percent of those experiencing eating disorders will not get the help they need due to stigma, misconceptions, lack of education and limited access to care.

For these same reasons, eating disorders are regularly excluded from the public conversation surrounding mental health; this despite the fact that over 30 million Americans suffer or will one day suffer from one or more of these complex mental illnesses. Without an earnest and urgent dialogue, these disorders will continue to go quietly undertreated and fatally misunderstood.

Celebrities and Eating Disorders

A few brave celebrities are using their platforms to raise our awareness. Taylor Swift opens up about her own experience in her new Netflix documentary, “Miss Americana.” In an interview with Variety, Swift described “see[ing] a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big…and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit – to just stop eating.” She continued, “I thought I was supposed to feel like I was going to pass out at the end of a show, or in the middle of it.”

In January, figure skater Gracie Gold competed in the U.S. National Championships after a three-year road back to the ice following inpatient treatment for an eating disorder, depression and anxiety. When her symptoms were developing, there were no role models speaking publicly about similar struggles to offer guidance or hope. As she told The New York Times last year, “I’d hear someone say, ‘I’m so depressed,’ and I’d think, ‘Tough it out.’"

It would be unthinkable to tell someone diagnosed with cancer to tough it out in lieu of seeking medical treatment. Psychiatric diagnoses are no different and eating disorders are a particularly dangerous threat with potentially permanent medical and emotional consequences. No one should ever be made to feel isolated when facing a health crisis, whether on a stage, on the ice or in everyday life.

Data shows that most patients with an eating disorder who receive treatment will improve or fully recover. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry tracked females treated for anorexia or bulimia over 22 years – the longest time period ever studied – and found that 63 and 68 percent, respectively, were able to reach and sustain full recovery. Importantly, comorbid depression along with an eating disorder predicts worse outcome.

Eating Disorder Treatment

The good news is that eating disorder treatment is widely available. I’ve been treating patients with eating disorders at all levels of care for more than 25 years. Early identification of symptoms, a full assessment for associated mood and anxiety problems, and access to specialized medical and psychiatric care are the most important factors associated with a good response to treatment.

For someone suffering from an eating disorder to get well, it must first be understood that they have a serious health condition, that treatment exists, and that recovery is possible. To ensure the millions of Americans suffering in silence know these things, we must start talking about them.

It’s time to talk openly about this mental illness. It’s time for local officials, the media, families and friends – all of us – to follow the lead of champions like Swift and Gold and start the conversation about eating disorders. This conversation will save lives.

Learn more about eating disorder recovery on our blog. If you or a loved one is in need of help for an eating disorder, please call us at (877) 711-1690 to connect with a master's-level clinician.

Anne Marie O’Melia, MD, is a pediatrician and child psychiatrist serving as the Chief Medical Officer of Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers, headquartered in Denver.

She is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah. Dr. O’Melia has co-authored multiple articles and book chapters on eating disorders and served as a co-investigator for various clinical trials related to psychopharmacology in the treatment of eating disorders and mood disorders.

[1]Smink, van Hoeken & Hoek (2012); Fichter & Quadflieg (2016)
[2]Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Recovery From Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa at 22-Year Follow-Up (2017) 
[3]Journal of Psychiatric Research, Predictors of long-term recovery in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: Data from a 22-year longitudinal study (2018)
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