One of the Deadliest Mental Illnesses

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Eating disorders are one of the deadliest illnesses, and some stigmas and myths are preventing people from getting the treatment they need. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder – that’s one death every 52 minutes.” 

For National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we talked with Patricia Westmoreland, a psychiatrist with HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center. Eating disorders have been on the rise, starting at younger and younger ages. 

Sadly, Dr. Westmoreland has seen children, ages seven and eight, struggling with an eating disorder. This illness can stem from peers, social media, and backlash against recommendations around childhood obesity. 

“So putting the microscope on kids who are overweight or there’s concern about obesity may very well lead that kid to go right to the other extreme and develop a very serious eating disorder,” Dr. Westmoreland says. “Unfortunately, in the culture we live in, there’s a huge emphasis on food, weight, size….” 

We asked Dr. Westmoreland questions about how to spot an eating disorder, what to do, how to prevent this from happening, and other vital information to help our children. 


Q: What is an Eating Disorder?

A: “An eating disorder is an abnormality in eating that causes changes in somebody’s body. That either leads to malnutrition, overnutrition, and either extensive weight gain or extensive weight loss, or even no change in weight, but the behaviors are such that they lead to physical problems with the person’s body.” 


Q: What are some myths about Eating Disorders? 

A: “One message that I really like to make sure that people realize is a myth is that you have to be very, very thin to have an eating disorder. That is not accurate, and unfortunately, that leads to a delay in patients getting treatment.”


Q: What signs should parents look for if they believe their child might have an eating disorder? 

A: “Changes from the child’s normal behavior in terms of both the amount and the type of food that they’re eating.”


Q: Do children tell their parents when they have an eating disorder? 

A: “Very often, an eating disorder will be born out of insecurity, within a peer group at school, or comparing themselves to peers, and they don’t always tell parents.”

In many cases, the children don’t want to worry their parents or believe they’re doing something good by going on a diet. An eating disorder can start innocently, but it can develop, and people can become obsessed with the number on the scale. 


Q: Why does something innocent become a dangerous and unhealthy obsession?

A: “We know that when our brains become malnourished, our thinking is not normal – it becomes abnormal…If individuals are pressed to lose weight that is less than what their sort of ideal weight range is, their brain will become starved, and they start becoming very obsessive about food and what they eat.”

“We really think that it is a physiological change that happens to the brain. The brain is an organ like other organs in our body, and when we starve organs in our body, they don’t work as well as they should.”


Q: What should I do if I believe my child has an eating disorder?

A: “The best way to intervene with eating disorders is using multimodal treatment with psychotherapy, a physician, or a dietician. Parents have to be careful, though, because there are pediatricians who are not as well-versed in eating disorders as other pediatricians might be. There also may be dietitians who do not specialize in eating disorders or child psychologists that don’t.”

“In Colorado, we have a number of very good eating disorder treatment centers that are able to offer treatment at various levels of care, both outpatient, partial hospital, inpatient, and residential.”


Q: How can parents prevent an eating disorder with their children?

A: “Being present with your child and knowing where your child is in terms of food and eating. How they feel about themselves in their peer group, what’s going on in their lives, and what their attitude is to weight and shape. I think just being present and noticing those things, and when things seem a little bit odd, trusting their instincts and really looking for help sooner rather than later.” 

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