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The 5 Q's: Jenny Copeland deconstructs myths, harms of eating disorders

Joplin Globe - 2/24/2020

Feb. 24--Q: This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. What is this designation intended to do?

A: It is a week that one of the primary eating disorders organizations does each year to do exactly what it talks about -- to raise awareness of specific issues related to eating disorders to help people understand them better. We find there is a fairly significant lack of education on eating disorders that can lead to problems.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders?

A: Up until now, we've grown up with an idea of someone with an eating disorder as, for example, Karen Carpenter. We have a specific idea that that's how they look.

By keeping that idea in mind, we actually miss a lot of other folks. For example, someone who is living in a larger body whose doctor might say is medically obese can still have anorexia, and it still does damage to their body and it can be just as deadly.

When we add on layers of someone who is not white, then we're adding components of racism that make it harder for them to get into treatment. For example, a lot of people assume that someone who is African American or a person of color is less likely to have an eating disorder, and that's just not accurate. When we hold those stereotypes, we can do a lot of damage.

Another (misconception) is that people are just doing it for attention or manipulation, and I think that's really damaging as well because it forces people to try and stay quiet. When we do things that force them to be more secretive, it becomes more severe.

Q: What are some of the risk factors for developing an eating disorder?

A: For us in Joplin, we live in a rural area, and a lot of our community is in that lower socioeconomic status, and we are finding that there are a lot of unique risks for folks with eating disorders in this area -- things like food scarcity, growing up without enough food or not knowing where your next meal is coming from.

Dieting can really set folks up for eating disorders. It sets up a cycle and really disrupts our relationship with food and also our body. One of the things we know from research is that young people, if they're engaging in any sort of behavior to control their weight, they're much more likely to have disordered eating later in life.

I think reaching out for help, as hard as it is, can be a really important step, and that can be calling your primary care doctor or someone here at Ozark Center. (Eating disorders) are incredibly dangerous and sometimes deadly, and it's hard to find recovery on your own, but we have evidence-based treatments that can get you there.

Q: How can friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors support someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder?

A: One of the things that makes recovery so hard is the society we live in because it really encourages a lot of behaviors at the heart of an eating disorder.

To create a world that's safe for people to recover in means that we all have to start taking a look at our own relationship with our bodies and how we talk about health and food. Getting away from that focus on food and weight and appearance, and giving someone compliments not based on how someone looks, is a good first step.

Q: Is recovery possible?

A: Recovery is possible. These are dangerous and sometimes deadly illnesses, but at the same time, with specialized treatment, about half of folks can find recovery.

We have to hold both the fear and the hope at the same time and trust that you're not alone, and there are people here who can help. These illnesses disconnect us from everything, and recovery means reconnecting.

Jenny Copeland is a licensed psychologist who leads the eating disorder team at Ozark Center, the behavioral health arm of Freeman Health System.


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