Eating Disorders Awareness Week is just around the corner – from February 23rd to March 1st. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders will affect more than 30 million Americans in their lifetimes – and disproportionately impact some segments of the LGBTQ community. This is a serious issue, as conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder can have negative consequences on one’s mental and physical health. In fact, research has shown that eating disorders have a mortality rate among the highest of any psychiatric disorder.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious medical and physical illnesses that relate to eating behaviors and that negatively impact your emotions, health, and ability to function. The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervsa – This condition causes individuals to restrict food intake, resulting in low weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa express a strong desire to be thin. They see themselves as overweight, even though they might be underweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa – People with bulimia nervosa secretly binge on large quantities of food, then purge to eliminate the calories in an unhealthy way.
  • Binge-eating disorder is characterized by eating large quantities of food in a short period of time, often to the point of discomfort. People with this disorder often report a loss of control during a binge.

Individuals who battle eating disorders excessively focus on their weight, body image, and food. This fixation affects their nutrition, which harms overall physical and mental health, and can cause a withdrawal from social interaction.

Eating disorders typically develop in the teen and young adult years, although they can occur at any time in a person’s life. Their occurrence has also been linked to other emotional issues, such as trauma or depression.

Why are LGBTQ people disproportionately affected? First, LGBTQ individuals report experiences of violence and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in greater numbers than their straight peers. Traumatic events sharply increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder.

Second, internalized negative messages and beliefs about oneself due to a person’s sexual orientation and gender expressions may sometimes result in intent to harm oneself. Eating disorders are one way self-hatred is manifest in bodily harm.

Finally, some LGBTQ individuals report an inability to meet body image ideals within some of communities’ cultural contexts. They develop an eating disorder as a means to achieve an ideal.

How can I get help? It’s important to remember that with therapy and treatment, people who suffer from an eating disorder can develop strategies to cope and find healing. However, there are some barriers to support and treatment that are unique to the LGBTQ community. These include a lack of treatment providers who are skilled in addressing the complexity of unique sexuality and gender identity issues. Further, LGBTQ people may receive less support from family and friends. And some communities do not offer safe spaces where LGBTQ people can receive mental health care.

That said, the Baltimore area boasts some of the leading treatment options for eating disorders, including support for LGBTQ individuals. The first step is to meet with a health care provider who is trained to recognize symptoms of the illness. Following diagnosis, treatment varies for each person but usually includes psychological and nutritional counseling and medications to counteract the medical consequences of the disorder.

Treatment may be a long road, as a provider will need to address the underlying biological, social, and cultural factors that precipitated the development of the disorder. There are a variety of levels of care, ranging from outpatient to residential to inpatient care. And there are also a number of therapeutic approaches to help patients find healing.

Finally, I’ve seen first-hand that relationships and connectedness provide a strong catalyst for recovery. Eating disorders can be extremely isolating illnesses and recovery requires support, encouragement, and ongoing motivation. Individuals with eating disorders and their loved ones can find hope and help in others who understand what they’re experiencing.