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Lauren ParkesOver the past year, several notable research studies have shed light on some of the biological influences that contribute to anorexia, and have pointed the way to potential new treatment approaches and underscored the fact that this and other eating disorders may be more common than we may think. As much as I have wanted to cover this topic for Mom Psych, the task seemed to require someone who knows a lot more about it than I do—and today’s guest blogger does. Lauren Parkes, the niece of dear friends in Australia, is very intimately acquainted with the challenges of living with an eating disorder. We are privileged that she is willing to share her experience with us in the following post.

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Last week was mental health week, and I wanted to do something to raise awareness about something really important, but I was scared of what people would say. In fact, I was so scared of this that I changed schools, changed my name. I retracted from the social sphere because I wanted to disappear; to not be judged. I hoped I’d find happiness in places where traces of me did not exist. I wanted to get smaller and smaller until I stopped stealing oxygen from the rest of the population, to suffer through this thought-pattern in silence.

But I know now that that doesn’t help anyone; it means I went through this for nothing, which in retrospect I don’t believe to be true. Now I’m tired of denying I have suffered from acute anorexia for the last year, and lesser so in the years leading up to it, in fear of seeming whiny and attention-seeking (when I’d much rather dig a hole and hide in it). Why? Because it’s just making people continuously think—just as the media suggests—that living the way I and other anorexics do is okay. Normal. That we are healthy. I’ve been sick of girls telling me, when at a forced-hospitalisation weight, that I had an enviable figure. Even the nurse that was supposed to be looking after me said she wished she had my problem, whilst she inserted my nasal-gastric tube to pump food into me (I know. Messed. Up.)

I have to say something because it’s just not okay for people to want to live the way myself and other sufferers do in order to achieve a “look.” Society will give up everything for aesthetic, and its so sad that we get pulled into this whirlpool of self-worth being connected to numbers on scales or the reflection in the mirror. Type in “how to” into Google and you get the suggestion: “How to be anorexic.” Perhaps a year or so ago I would have clicked on this, like so many insecure people in pursuit of confidence in their physical selves as a means to attain inner-confidence, when confidence is the last thing anorexia gives you.

People who haven’t suffered from this illness will have trouble grasping that this isn’t about weight and food at all (that’s the result, not the cause), and furthermore that it isn’t a choice. I got it without wanting it, and it took me to hospital and psychiatric wards and back to realise something important that the world never teaches enough. Firstly: skinny isn’t all it’s made out to be. I was turned down jobs, told to eat a bigger breakfast from strangers, and even had someone spit at me when she drove past, yelling “EAT SOMETHING.” I broke down and cried, a heap of bones on the sidewalk, wanting nothing but to be accepted.

Secondly: Measurements, food-management, exercise or anything that’s abused to create a physical manifestation of how fragile you may feel inside (cuts, muscles, bones—take your pick); they’re not adequate means of finding content in oneself, nor is it a coping mechanism that delivers lasting comfort or sense of control. In fact, comfort and control are what it takes away from you, amongst countless other things. Achieving something physically does not awaken a self-contentedness that you never developed previously. If you don’t feel happy within yourself NOW, that’s the issue that needs dealing with, because trying to reinvent yourself physically or how you appear socially, is a separate matter—you’ll still be the same unhappy person on the inside.

I learnt that the hard way. Anorexia persists because whilst you still have variables in your life that can be more restricted and controlled, there is still hope in personal perfection. Perfection = supposed peace.

But in reality there are no montages, no gallant orchestra soundtracks, or video-edited camera pans that magically come together and form this moment when perfection is reached, to make you feel confident and strong. So you keep going, and going, and the mindset becomes exponentially perverted and deceived from the malnourished state of your brain, so that you lose sight of everything else. I did. All because I couldn’t deal with insecurity and because I lacked the resilience to tackle the everyday obstacles that life catapulted towards me. I couldn’t muster the courage to do anything but determine my worth by how people treated/mistreated me, what they said/didn’t say about me, when everything could have been different if I had learnt that your worth is only determined by YOU. That is the only steadfast sense of self-worth that remains a lifetime; mere comments that people say from day to day will change like the wind, and will leave you feeling like you have no concrete identity. But it’s there.

All of this may seem so commonsensical to you, as it does me now, but recognising logic when you currently reside in rigid illogicality of thought, doesn’t mean you are able to stop your ill outlook and behaviours. I can empathise with the mentally non-affected in this way, because I too was like you. I’d seen all the psychiatric ward documentaries and had not understood how they couldn’t simply fix themselves—that mental illness was not just people not wanting to change how they felt and making everyone else have to deal with them. But it’s REAL. What a terrifying revelation it has been for me.

I knew throughout my anorexia that I had a serious problem. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but at the same time it seemed so REAL to me, and I forgotten how to live any different. It made so much sense because over time, I’d biologically rewired my neurological pathways so that my body could run on the lack of food and excessive exercise I was doing, accommodating a thought pattern that pervertedly makes sense of defying life’s basic instinct: to eat and LIVE. That’s why anorexia is an extremely nature-defying problem, and why you can’t just “stop” when you want to, because your brain is physically not the same one you had before. And society often embraces its mindset.

I got onto various extreme diets during my problem; raw foodism, veganism, gluten-free-ism for the non-gluten-intolerant, etc. and I was championed for it. I never knew I had anorexia until it was too late, because my friends, family, every magazine to date, were praising me for having “so much self-control,” when many of these diets are actually used as a disguise for socially-accepted eating disorders. I wasn’t doing it “for the animals,” “for the environment,” or even why I thought I was doing it: “to be the healthiest person I can be.” It was for control, and it never gave me that.

Anorexia is the biggest killer out of all mental illnesses (20% die). Even though I’m still alive, I’ve lost friends, bone density, muscle-mass, the ability to have children (temporarily, hopefully), have scars on my wrists, have bald patches on my head, been in lock-down rooms on suicide-watch, had parkinson/epileptic-looking panic-attacks, and wasted my high school years to insecurity—with the cherry-on-top: a whole year of anorexia and suicidal pre-occupation.

All of this happens, around the world, all the time. On and on. In silence. With a false smile to hide the pain. I’m sick of my poor friends having cuts on their arms. Of primary schoolers throwing up their meals. Of people praising others who have lost weight when they were healthy before. Of guys enslaving themselves at the gym because they feel “puny.” Of hearing stories like several of my friends having been raped by their fathers and relatives when they were a child (the ward I went to is a very, sad place) and being forever shaken from the aftermath. I’m sick of people saying to depressed people: “just be happy” and to those with eating disorders: “why don’t you just EAT?”

Try telling a cancer patient to cure themselves, and you’ll see how helpful statements like that are. I’m sick of boys having to act like emotionless statues at school to fit in, only to cry silently in their beds at night, wanting to disappear. I know, because I hear their stories. I’ve held them when they cried.

No matter if you are heterosexual, homosexual, a schizophrenic intellectual. A white man, brown girl, green, blue, purple or black, an LSD-tripping insomniac. If you’re an anorexic perfectionist, an OCD receptionist, suicidal atheist, an alcoholic therapist—Yes, okay, I’m not going to feature in an Eminem album. What I mean is, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; you ALL have a voice and a story, and you are entitled to feel not okay. We’re only human: and society has to stop teaching us that we shouldn’t possess things that make us a member of our species, having to shove all the emotional baggage, all our unique traits, in the cupboard under the stairs like they’re Harry Potter hiding from the Dursley’s. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Please, if you’re suffering, seek help. You deserve happiness. Recovery is possible; take it from someone who thought it wasn’t. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, whatever it is you carry on your shoulders, it’s okay to lean on those around us for support. If you are a parent/friend/family member looking for someone with personal insight into any of the above-mentioned issues, please don’t hesitate to contact me or leave me a question.

Remember: you are not a college admission rank, a statistic, a grade, a measurement, the number of friends you have, the amount of boys/girls who like you, the classes you’re good at, what you eat, the compliments you receive, the criticisms that come your way, nor are you the things you do or fail to do. NOTHING can encompass all that you are, and when you try to fit into these types of categories, or determine your worth by them, you’re reducing yourself. You’re so much more.

LAUREN PARKES

 

Lauren now has a regular blog on Mom Psych: Please follow her on Inside Anorexia.

 

 

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teen mental healthBefore we quite leave September’s topic of suicide prevention to focus on Bullying Prevention Month in October, I wanted to offer up this informative guest post from Dr. Jesse Viner, Founder and Executive Medical Director at YellowbrickDr. Viner is a recognized expert in the treatment of eating disorders, difficulties resulting from trauma and abuse, and bipolar disorder. He has served as Director of Adult Psychiatry Inpatient Services for Northwestern University Medical School; Medical Director of Four Winds Chicago and Director of University Behavioral Health. A Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, he is currently on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. 

Mom Psych is pleased to support organizations that respect the developmental, neurobiological and psychosocial underpinnings of mental health in their efforts to help teens and young adults. I hope you will connect with Dr. Viner on Google+.

While no parent wants to believe that their child would ever consider taking their own life, suicide is actually the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. It’s vital for parents of young adults to understand and recognize the warning signs of depression, the potential health impact of a suicide attempt, and how to seek help if their child is having suicidal thoughts. That’s why Yellowbrick, a Chicago-based treatment center for troubled emerging adults, has put together an infographic highlighting some of the key things parents need to know about depression and suicide. Learn some of the key facts and view the original graphic below.

Identifying Warning Signs and Causes of Suicidal Thoughts

While research has shown that there is no reliable indicator of an impending suicide, there are certain behaviors that may mean your child is at risk for a suicide attempt. Symptoms of depression, such as withdrawal from other people, a loss of interest in activities that once brought joy, expressions of despair, keeping secrets, and abnormal sleeping patterns may be signs that your young adult is having suicidal thoughts.

Unfortunately, certain mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also have a higher risk for suicide. Anorexia nervosa puts young people at a greater risk for suicide because starvation affects mood and impairs decision-making abilities. Other factors that may increase the risk for suicide include a genetic predisposition to mental illness or substance abuse, familial influences, peer influences, and one or more previous suicide attempts.

How a Suicide Attempt Affects Mental Health

The CDC reports that more young people survive suicide attempts than die, and an estimated 157,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical attention for self-inflicted injuries every year. However, physical injuries aren’t the only type of harm associated with a suicide attempt. Because there is a gateway affect for the risk-reward center of the brain, carrying out one suicide attempt makes it easier to carry out another, according to Yellowbrick. Additionally, a suicide attempt is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which can cause increased actual or perceived social isolation. This in turn can heighten existing emotional tensions and cause a young adult to believe that they have no support network or meaningful connections in their life.

Getting Help for At-Risk Young Adults

Parents of young adults who have attempted suicide are often unsure of the best way to talk to their child or seek help. One of the key issues that Yellowbrick points out is that young adults often experience deep shame after a failed suicide attempt, so it’s important for parents to demonstrate acceptance and a lack of judgment. Parents can offer their support by empathizing with their child, even if what their child is primarily feeling is anger. Young adults need to be able to feel that they have a safe outlet for their emotions, since bottling their emotions up may lead them to hide future suicidal thoughts. Parents need to remember that they can’t read their child’s mind and shouldn’t make assumptions about what he or she is thinking, but should rather establish open communication.

Because depression is a serious mental illness and suicide is a serious public health problem, a young adult who is at risk for suicide may also need to seek help and support in the form of counseling and treatment. Treatment programs like Yellowbrick can help young adults build meaningful and self-affirming connections, work through difficult transitional periods, learn valuable life skills, and develop emotional resilience.

teen mental health

Infographic courtesy of Yellowbrick

World Suicide Prevention DaySuicide is a widespread public health problem, albeit one that many people find it difficult to talk about, whether they are at risk themselves or have a loved one who is at risk. To combat the stigma that encourages silence, World Suicide Prevention Day was established by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) on September 10, 2003.

This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day is “One World Connected,” chosen in order to emphasize how important connectedness is to those who may be at risk for suicide.

“Studies have shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide, and, conversely, that having strong human bonds can be protective against it.” writes the IASP, “Reaching out to those who have become disconnected from others and offering them support and friendship may be a life-saving act.”

That said, many of those who complete suicide do have strong connections with loved ones. It is important to recognize there are multiple factors that increase the risk of suicide, and perhaps the most influential of these is mental health. Approximately 90% of those who die by suicide in Western nations suffer from at least one mental disorder, so prevention efforts must include connecting people to the mental healthcare services that can help them reduce their risk.

Connecting, of course, requires communication. Unfortunately, a common belief is that asking someone if they are thinking about suicide may encourage them to do so. This unfortunate myth can do much more harm than good. “The truth,” says the Mayo Clinic, is that “when someone is in crisis or depressed, asking if he or she is thinking about suicide can help. Giving a person an opportunity to open up and share their troubles can help alleviate their pain and open a path to solutions.”

This doesn’t mean that all forms of communication are equally beneficial, however. In its first-ever report on suicide prevention, released for World Suicide Prevention Day 2014, the WHO cautions against media coverage that sensationalizes and glamorizes, leading to an increased risk of “copycat” suicides. “Media practices are inappropriate when they gratuitously cover celebrity suicides, report unusual methods of suicide or suicide clusters, show pictures or information about the method used, or normalize suicide as an acceptable response to the crisis or adversity,” says the report. While one man’s gratuitous report may be another’s informative news brief, the WHO describes responsible reporting as “avoiding detailed descriptions of suicidal acts, avoiding sensationalism and glamourization, using responsible language, minimizing the prominence of suicide reports, avoiding oversimplifications, educating the public about suicide and available treatments, and providing information on where to seek help.”

There is still much to learn about suicide prevention, but the good news is that the past few decades have seen great leaps in understanding some of the factors that increase risk for, as well as those that provide protection from, suicide. The awareness message of World Suicide Prevention Day, obviously, is that suicide is preventable. There are therapies that have proven effective, but unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental disorders—and with suicidality—can be a major barrier to seeking help.

An important myth to eradicate is that suicidal thinking is an enduring characteristic. “Heightened suicide risk is often short-term and situation-specific,” writes the WHO. “While suicidal thoughts may return, they are not permanent and an individual with previously suicidal thoughts and attempts can go on to live a long life.”

For more information:

Mom Psych: Suicide and Self Harm Index

Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative ~The World Health Organization 2014

International Association for Suicide Prevention: Resources

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