Eating disorders are a mental illness, not a social media trend

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In the past week, I’ve seen several reports suggesting Instagram could potentially put you at an increased risk for an eating disorder known as orthorexia. It is the latest in a long line of reports blaming eating disorders are everything from ads, the fashion industry, and even parents. While there may be some truth underlying these ideas, there is also something very important that goes forgotten when people start asking if something “causes” eating disorders.

Eating disorders are a mental illness.

They are not someone “acting out for attention.” They are not just “a phase.” Eating disorders are a serious psychiatric condition that does lasting damage to both the brain and body. They can also be fatal.

There is a very real possibility that societal pressures from body representations in the media or online could trigger negative behaviors or thoughts in someone predisposed to disordered eating, but asking if social media or models on a catwalk are the sources of eating disorders in young men and women is frequently missing the point.

While we look for things to blame for eating disorders, it also perpetuates the idea that someone with anorexia or bulimia was just misled or following poor role-models. Meanwhile, there is a sizable amount of evidence showing the real root of these disorders lies in DNA and brain structures.

Most importantly, when people blame things like social media for eating disorders they also start looking in the wrong places for solutions.

As Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health explained in a statement representing the Academy for Eating Disorders:

“Based on genetic and neuroimaging studies, eating disorders appear to have a biological basis, analogous to what is observed in other serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addictive diseases. All of these illnesses, including eating disorders, need to be addressed as biomedical as well as behavioral problems if we are to help people recover.”

Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association describes attempts to blame eating disorders on the media as being like blaming the Marlboro Man for lung cancer.

“The Marlboro Man didn’t cause lung cancer, but he did encourage people to smoke,” Grefe said. “Some people—not everyone—will do anything to look like that. We can’t blame the media because if the media caused eating disorders, we’d all have one.”

Following that metaphor, you can’t just decide to recover from lung cancer even if you decide to stop smoking. Similarly, you can’t just “snap out” of an eating disorder.

Unless people understand that eating disorders are a psychiatric illness which typically calls for professional treatment, they can unwittingly continue dangerous behaviors. You have to treat the root cause, and that takes help.

If you think you or someone you know may be living with binge eating disorder, give us a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and find the right treatment plan for you.

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