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  • Gabrielle Galchen

How Does Summertime Affect Eating Disorders?

Though it is grossly misrepresented in the media, one silent epidemic has been raging for decades: eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, killing about one American every hour. Currently, an estimated 30 million Americans have eating disorders: 20 million women, and 10 million men. 


There are a variety of causes of eating disorders - biological, environmental, and cultural. However, the frequency and severity of eating disorders is particularly augmented during the summer months. This is largely because hotter weather is associated with more revealing clothing, which causes those who suffer from body dysmorphia to feel more insecure of their bodies and resort to unhealthy methods of coping. Social media creates a toxic environment through self-promotion and paid advertising, both of which often utilize photo-shopping to idolize unrealistic body types. Summer is also an abrupt transition from the structure of the school year, which means that those who are prone to eating disorders have more difficulty maintaining a recovery-oriented meal plan.


The uptick in eating disorders during the summer months correlates with the uptick in other mental health illnesses, as eating disorders are often a co-occurring illness. Summer months disrupt the structured routine and consistent socialization of the academic year, which often leads to feelings of depression and anxiety. Those who suffer from body dysmorphia and summer-related depression or anxiety may develop an eating disorder or go into relapse during the summer.


Most at-risk during the summer months are anorexic patients, who are often hypercritical of their bodies. 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men suffer from anorexia; this reflects the general trend of eating disorders that women are disproportionately pressured to conform to unhealthy societal measures of “beauty”. However, whether it be wearing a bathing suit or more revealing clothing, those who suffer from anorexia will be more inclined to resort to excessive dieting or exercising. It is also easier to skip meals due to the lack of structure in the summertime. 


Though eating disorders are just like any other mental illness, they are more underplayed and stigmatized. 66.7% of Americans receive treatment for more common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, yet only 10% of Americans receive treatment for eating disorders. However, because women suffer more than men from eating disorders, it is more socially acceptable for women to accept help than men. This is a pattern relating to all mental health illnesses, as men are taught by a toxically-masculine society to let their negative emotions and insecurities fester. 


Stigma is not the only obstacle victims face. Even those who do receive treatment are typically not granted quality care. About 80% of the women who have obtained professional care for their eating disorders are sent home weeks earlier than the suggested stay, which often induces the women to go into a relapse.


The prejudice surrounding eating disorders is also reflected in the costliness of both inpatient (psychiatric care) and outpatient (therapy) treatments, as they are generally not covered by health insurance. In the US, treating an eating disorder costs about $500 to $2,000 per day. The average cost for one month of inpatient care is $30,000, though the recommended time for full recovery is three to six months. The cost of outpatient treatment is even costlier, reaching a total cost of $100,000 or more. This financial barrier is the main reason that most patients do not receive treatment. 


Many patients have instead used more affordable methods of treatment. Some attend low-cost community mental health centers, though many of these centers lack providers with specialized training. Adolescent teens often turn to Family-Based Treatment (FBT), which teaches parents how to renourish their teens. Many treatment centers have support groups and treatment scholarships, and a few university research programs offer low-cost treatment in exchange for clinical research. Unfortunately, these cheaper alternatives are often insufficient to fully help patients recover. 


Thankfully, some progress has been made. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed into federal law, requiring insurance companies to cover for mental health and substance use disorders. In turn, in 2015, the Anne Westin Act was nationally implemented, further clarifying that treatment for eating disorders was included in the Parity Law. It was also enacted to expose the toxic effects of advertisements that photo-shop models’ bodies. Largely due to this legislation, recent statistics show that 80% of patients who receive and complete full eating disorder treatment will significantly improve or recover.

 

Regardless, treatment for eating disorders remains extremely costly and typically insufficient. It is imperative that the federal government enact legislation mandating that all health insurance cover a minimum of three months treatment for eating disorders. As a culture, Americans must also spread awareness about eating disorders, destigmatize patients, and promote norms of body positivity, whether it be through speaking out against underweight models in advertising/social media or uplifting one another in everyday life. Doing so can and will save countless lives. 


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©2020 by The Bipartisan Feminist Project.

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