Though our team at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders participates annually in the New York City NEDA Walk, organized by the National Eating Disorders Association, this year was my first to attend. We represented our multidisciplinary group of colleagues well – with a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, post-doctoral research fellow, and research assistants in attendance – and delighted in talking about what it means to receive treatment in a research program, our current studies, and our interest in recruiting those with and without eating disorders to partner with us in learning more about these disorders so that we might advance science and treatment.
However, the most powerful part of my first NEDAWalk was not anything that I (or we, as a group) said to families, friends, and individuals affected by eating disorders who stopped by to say hi; rather, it was what I heard and saw, reminding me of what really matters about eating disorders.
- Eating disorders can be deadly. One group stopped by our table to thank us for the research we do and commented that they wish more had been known in time to save their loved one. On their t-shirts was a picture of a vibrant young woman, lost to an eating disorder. This was a poignant reminder of the seriousness of these disorders. For example, anorexia nervosa is known to be associated with a mortality rate as high as that seen in any psychiatric illness; a young woman with this disorder faces six times the average risk of death for someone her age, and mortality rises for every decade of illness. Suicide accounts for a significant number of those deaths and at least one-quarter of individuals with bulimia nervosa have also made suicide attempts.
- Eating disorders do not discriminate. Before the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, several speakers addressed the crowd. One was a young man with binge eating disorder, who had been in therapy for a long time before the eating problem was identified and addressed. Like many anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders do affect more women than men, but men can certainly develop these problems. Binge eating disorder is about as common in men as women, and men represent between one-tenth to one-fourth of the cases of bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. The ratio of males to females among children and adolescents with eating disorders, including ARFID, is a bit higher than in adults. Sometimes, the ways these disorders manifest in men are eerily similar to in women; fortunately, advances in research are clueing us in to important differences as well.
- Full recovery is possible. By far my favorite sign at the NEDA Walk was a simple one stating, “8 Years Strong!” We have written previously how recovery looks and feels different for different people, and how it’s critical to stay alert to possible lapses.
But fundamentally, it is essential to reach for full recovery, and not to settle for anything short of it, because it is, in fact, possible to build a meaningful life and leave the eating disorder in the rear-view mirror. At Columbia, we hear some wonderful stories when we bring back recovered former patients to speak on our inpatient unit and when we call former study participants annually to find out how they are doing. And so we can – and do – say with conviction that full recovery is always possible!
NEDA holds organized walks across the nation. If you or a loved one has been affected by an eating disorder, it might be worth checking out one of these events to hone your own important take-away messages.