Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Forgotten Battle

When you stop and think, it’s hard to believe how much progress we’ve made in medicine. Diseases that years ago would have caused a pandemic are now preventable with routine vaccines. We can regulate heartbeats with electronic devices and test our own blood sugar at home. Survival rates for so many types of cancer are rising. There are promising new technologies for restoring sight.

And even more research is under way in these areas. But there is a whole other sector of medicine that doesn’t enjoy all the headlines. What about mental illnesses?

What got me thinking about this? TIME magazine printed an article in its July 23 issue about military suicides (available here to subscribers). They have now outstripped combat deaths in Afghanistan. It seems we are fighting yet another war, but one that is hidden behind stories of raids and bombs and drone strikes.

The article talks about the difficulties of adjusting to life back home. But what really struck me was the observation of one of the wives that her husband was anxious with all the downtime; he didn’t feel comfortable without the precise routine he’d lived with while deployed overseas.

What strikes me is how much this can relate to eating disorders. You have a rigid schedule of what to eat and when, and it’s like the world stops spinning if something interferes with that. I know that for me, moving towards more regular meals was kind of scary (I’m still guilty of usually eating at certain times). There is some sort of perverse comfort in such repetitive behavior. I can totally understand how overwhelming it would be to let go of such a strict regimen.

If you want another similarity, consider this: Eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness. Yet we hear more in the news about multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. These things appear more frequently in television shows and movies. As a society, I feel like we are much less aware of eating disorders than these other diseases.


Well, the TIME article pointed out a very important reason for the high suicide rates: the stigma of seeking treatment for depression. The same stigma exists to some extent with mental illnesses. We don’t want to talk about it.

With a physical problem, the causes are known. It’s not your fault you have the flu, or cancer, or a broken leg. But with eating disorders, some people feel that there is an element of choice and that’s how you “got” it. And, since you made the “decision” in the first place you should be able to decide to stop. No one wants to go to a doctor and be told, It’s your own fault, make the choice to stop.

So part of it is lack of understanding. Sometimes we’re afraid of what we don’t understand; sometimes we just don’t want to think about it. Either way, a large part of the population is fighting a huge battle under the radar, made all the harder because the supporting troops are few and far between. We cannot do it alone.

I think there is a link between reducing the number of military suicide rates and increasing the chances of recovery from eating disorders. I can relate to so much of the mental processes that the TIME article touches on, and that makes me think that helping one group can only help the other as well.

It’s time to support our troops by enlisting ourselves, not against the physical perils of war but against the mental demons that can be so much deadlier.
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