Call to Action: Reducing the Stigma

When we left off last time, I alluded to the stigma surrounding eating disorders in our community. There are several types of stigma we experience. One type of stigma refers to the shame and guilt sometimes surrounding a young observant girl has who is struggling with an eating disorder. Being religious, she may feel conflicted as she wonders, “How can I be having this experience when I believe in G-d?” or “Why is my spiritual connection not solid enough to free me from my food and eating struggles?”  This can, sadly, lead her to suffer in silence as she perceives she will be stigmatized if she admits to or gets help for her illness.

Another stigma pertains to someone being diagnosed with an eating disorder and getting help for it. Data shows that it is one thing for someone to look like she might have an eating disorder, but is another thing entirely to receive a clinical diagnosis and/or go into treatment for one. This type of stigma affects not only the person struggling with the disorder, but the entire family as well. Parents often hesitate whether to take their child to therapy, as having an eating disorder is a label that will follow this child, as well as their others, possibly for life. Alternatively, they get their child the help they desperately need, but, as I’ve heard numerous times, parents hide it from the rest of their children, extended family, and community out of feelings of shame and the stigma that will most certainly follow.

Many people interviewed for my own study revealed that eating disorders are not often talked about and shared in our community. This is due in part, to the overall stigma that surrounds any mental health issue, but is also because there is a particularly large stigma to admitting to and receiving help for an eating disorder. Part of this has to do with the shidduch system, as any perceived flaw or defect is considered unacceptable and can render a girl and her siblings “damaged”. It creates a real challenge as we know, since I mentioned the dangers of modeling perfection last week, so by brushing things under the rug and not acknowledging the realities of our struggles, we perpetuate the stigma and ultimately make things worse for our children. This results in them feeling that they are not good enough as their struggle brings shame and embarrassment to their family, that they are unimportant and misunderstood.

It is critical that we acknowledge the eating issues and disorders experienced in our communities. In order to fix a problem, admission that there is one is needed. If parents, rabbis, teachers, or principals do not acknowledge or worse, tell someone struggling that she does not have a problem, the one struggling then does not know she has a real issue and ends up suffering in silence, thinking she is one who is wrong and/or confused. She has no one to turn to to get the help she so desperately needs. If stigma is reduced, the surrounding shame would disappear as well.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not realize the danger and depth of harm eating disorders create. They say, “I wish I could look like her” or “She could stop eating so much if she really wanted to”. The profundity of the illness and the prisoner that the afflicted person becomes to it, is simply not comprehended. We must reduce the stigma around all mental health illnesses, at least to the same degree as physical ailments, as neither are anyone’s fault and everyone deserves to get the help they need!

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