According to some recent studies, as many as 20 million American women and 10 million American men have suffered from some sort of clinically diagnosable eating disorder in their lifetime. Though many of these individuals have recovered, the fact that nearly 10% of all Americans will suffer from eating disorders ought to suggest that we are currently facing a sort of public health epidemic.
Teenagers are especially likely to suffer from eating disorders. The teenage years are particularly difficult, and if we ever expect to adequately address this public health epidemic that indeed affects the whole of society, then we will need to begin by addressing the specific needs of teens and try to find lasting solutions.
What are the most common eating disorders experienced by teenagers?
The two most common eating disorders affecting the American teenager are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
· Anorexia nervosa is characterized by intentional food restriction (not eating), dramatic weight loss, a tremendous fear of gaining weight, and is often accompanied by low energy and a severe lack of self-esteem.
· Bulimia nervosa is a slightly more difficult condition to detect. An individual who suffers from this condition might display apparently normal eating habits but then attempt to privately purge the food either by vomiting or taking laxatives. They might also consistently binge eat (and then purge).
Like anorexia, bulimia is also a condition that can result in very unhealthy weight-loss patterns, and is also highly associated with a number of different psychological ailments such as low self-esteem.
Both of these conditions can result in further complications including depression, anxiety, drug abuse, problems with school, and even suicide. Both of these conditions are disproportionately common among teenagers when compared to other demographics. If you believe that your teenager might be suffering from anorexia, bulimia, or any other sort of eating disorder, you ought to take action immediately.
Why are teenagers particularly likely to suffer from eating disorders?
Though there are indeed a large number of adults and even young children across the country who suffer from eating disorders, teenagers compose the demographic that is most at risk. Evidently, there are several reasons why this is the case:
· Teenagers are more psychologically prone to suffer from body dysmorphia—a condition in which they cannot see their own body accurately. This is likely caused by the effects of puberty and experiencing a tremendous amount of bodily change.
· The physical, mental, and hormonal changes that are associated with puberty make teenagers more likely to be insecure and suffer from low self-esteem.
· Increased media exposure that is typically experienced by teenagers consistently imposes an impossible beauty standard and suggests the need for drastic change.
· A sudden increase in stress (caused by school, development, social life, etc.) alongside the perception that very little else in one’s life is within their ability to control.
· The teenage years are a time that is uniquely characterized by the search for identity, the need to fit in, the need to be liked, and the need to adopt a certain image.
Every individual is different, and there is no specific year in which the risk of suffering from an eating disorder “begins” nor is there a specific year in which this risk “ends”. Many of the contributing factors mentioned above persist, at least to some extent, throughout our entire lives (particularly stress, social pressures, media pressures, etc.).
What are some different ways to effectively treat eating disorders?
Because eating disorders are among the most common physical and psychological conditions currently affecting teenagers, teen psychologists have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort searching for authentic and productive paths towards recovery. Ultimately, the recovery modality that will work best for a given individual depends on their unique personality and the severity of their condition.
This being said, these are a few of the leading treatment types for eating disorders in teenagers:
· Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): this is the most widely utilized practice for improving an individual’s mental health. Supported by ample clinical studies, CBT seeks to understand the root causes behind an individual’s behavior, feelings, and thoughts, and seeks to guide them to coping mechanism that can produce more positive outcomes.
· Acceptance and Commitment Therapy- a specific type of CBT, this method can be used to help teenagers realize the need for help, recognize the possibility of improvement, and direct them towards a lasting solution.
· Residential treatment centers (RTC): for individuals who are suffering from the most severe eating disorders, residential treatment centers can often offer them the highly intensive care that they need. By being able to live at a safe facility, recovery—and the redevelopment of healthy eating habits—can become their foremost priority.
· Experiential Treatment- this modality helps to instill a sense of self-worth, purpose, and control into individuals who suffer from a variety of different conditions by using art, music, nature, poetry, and other positive experiences.
· Family-based therapy – because the family is the foundational social unit for many teenagers (and quite often, the source of much of their food), working comprehensively with their family can often produce some of the most lasting results.
These are just some of the treatment modalities currently being utilized by psychologists, and quite often, these different therapies can be cross-applied and combined together depending on the specific needs of the individual.
Socially, clinically, and collectively, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done if we want to overcome what clearly seems to be an often unspoken public health epidemic. However, a lot of progress has certainly been made, there is hope out there for suffering teenagers, and there are several accessible paths to recovery available.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).