Family support is crucial for people recovering from eating disorders in Australia, as it can significantly impact their success and well-being. Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can affect people of any age, gender, or cultural background. They are deeply personal disorders, often making an individual feel incredibly alone, yet one person’s eating disorder can greatly impact an entire family, changing their way of relating to and treating each other.
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders encompass a range of mental health conditions that cause an individual to use the control of food to cope with feelings and difficult situations. They can have severe physical, emotional, and social consequences, including malnutrition, social isolation, and low self-esteem. Eating disorders can have different symptoms and effects, but each condition involves an extreme focus on food and eating issues, and some also involve a focus on weight.
According to the Butterfly Foundation, around 9% of the population in Australia will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, with around 75% of these being women. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Given the seriousness of these disorders, it is vital to have a strong support network, including family members.
Anorexia is among the most common eating disorders in Australia, affecting around 0.5% of the population, according to Eating Disorders Victoria. People with anorexia experience an intense fear of weight gain, so may restrict their energy intake through food or liquids or exercise excessively in order to lose weight. This intense restriction of energy and nutrition can lead to low body weight and sometimes malnutrition, which can have serious medical complications.
Those with bulimia nervosa, often just called bulimia, will engage in episodes of binge eating followed by purging through excessive exercise, vomiting, or using laxatives. Binge eating episodes are often in private. During a binge, there is a strong sense of having lost control, which causes people to eat much more food than they normally would. It is generally described as an incredibly unpleasant experience where food is not enjoyed or savoured and causes intense feelings of guilt and shame. Following a binge, individuals with bulimia then engage in compensatory behaviours called in an attempt to remove the calories they have just consumed and prevent weight gain. Bulimia is often accompanied by body image issues that cause a huge sense of dissatisfaction.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in Australia and also the least well-known. In Australia, 47% of all people with an eating disorder have binge eating disorder – over twice as many than with bulimia and anorexia combined.
Individuals with BED experience similar sensations as those with bulimia nervosa during a binge episode. Things such as stress or having a bad day might trigger one of these episodes. Mental health is also affected by the intense discomfort, distress, and shame of the binge episode. This is often made worse by the social stigma of seeming lazy, overweight or lacking self-control.
Signs of Eating Disorders Families Should Know
There are a range of behavioural, physical and psychological signs of eating disorders families should be aware of.
Families should become familiar with the signs and symptoms of eating disorders so they can identify them early and help their loved ones seek treatment. Some common signs to look out for are:
- Changes in eating habits – this can include avoiding certain foods or food groups, skipping meals completely, or eating in secret.
- Dramatic weight loss or weight gain – individuals with eating disorders may lose or gain a significant amount of weight quickly or over time.
- Obsession with food, calories, and weight – this can manifest as constantly talking about food, body weight, strict dieting, or excessive exercise.
- Distorted body image – individuals with eating disorders may perceive themselves as overweight or obese, even if they are dangerously underweight.
- Physical symptoms – these can include fatigue, dizziness, fainting, constipation, and stomach pain.
- Social withdrawal – individuals with eating disorders may isolate themselves from friends and family, avoid social situations involving food, or become irritable and moody.
- Changes in mood and behaviour – eating disorders can cause anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Individuals may become more irritable, agitated, or secretive.
If families notice these signs or have concerns about their loved ones, they should seek professional help from a healthcare provider, mental health professional, or eating disorder specialist. Early intervention can help prevent long-term health complications and improve outcomes for individuals with eating disorders.
Causes of Eating Disorders
When a child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, parents can search for reasons why this is happening and what caused the disorder. An eating disorder can be caused or triggered by a wide range of including biological, psychological, and social factors. Some of the common causes of eating disorders include:
There is clinical evidence that eating disorders can run in families, and certain genetic factors may make some individuals more vulnerable to developing these conditions.
Eating disorders are often associated with psychological factors such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a distorted body image. These factors can contribute to an unhealthy relationship between food and eating.
Cultural and social pressures can also contribute to the development of eating disorders. For example, the media often promotes unrealistic standards of beauty and body shape, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a desire to control one’s weight and eating habits.
Trauma or Stress
Traumatic events or stressful life experiences, such as abuse, bullying, or the loss of a loved one, can also contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Dieting and Weight Loss
Restrictive diets and attempts to lose weight can also trigger the development of eating disorders, particularly in individuals who may be predisposed to these conditions.
An eating disorder is often caused by a combination of these factors rather than any single cause. Treatment for eating disorders typically involves a combination of therapy, medication, and nutritional counselling to address both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition.
Family Members Involvement in Therapy
Family members can play an important role in the recovery process by providing emotional support, helping with meal planning and preparation, and encouraging healthy behaviours. They can also assist with managing triggers, offering a safe space for open communication, and advocating for their loved one when seeking treatment.
Family-based treatment (FBT) involves family members being actively involved in the treatment process, including attending sessions with the individual in recovery. FBT aims to empower families to help their loved one achieve and maintain healthy eating behaviours and improve their mental health outcomes.
Research has shown that FBT can result in a significant reduction in eating disorder symptoms and increase the quality of life for the person in recovery. It can also improve the family’s relationships and overall well-being, which is often impacted significantly by an eating disorder in a loved one.
Family support is a vital component of eating disorder recovery in Australia. It is essential for parents and other family members to educate themselves about eating disorders, communicate openly, and provide ongoing support to their loved ones.
Support for Families
There are specialist services available for families and carers who are concerned about the disordered eating behaviour or body image issue of a loved one. Parents and young people can all benefit from additional support services, eating disorder resources and education and professional advice. If a family member is struggling, it is important that carers have the resources and knowledge to talk to them, advocate for them, and help provide access to services that provide focused guidance or treatment. Online support groups, carer support groups and other groups for families and carers with a lived experience of eating disorders can provide a safe space to offer and experience peer support. Peer support and carer support groups can also be a great space for educating families that are trying to support a person with an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Treatment Options at The Wave Clinic
At The Wave, we offer specialist eating disorder programmes for young people and families in Australia. We offer a range of helpful resources, confidential support services and family and sibling therapy. At The Wave, we believe the involvement of the family is pivotal to effective treatment and long-term recovery. Providing the right tools and education to help families find hope and respond to challenges, we help young people and their families find long-term recovery from eating disorders.