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11th Jun 2015

“An Eating Disorder Is Not Primarily About Food”

Dr Maeve Hurley discusses the truth about eating disorders in Ireland.


It’s believed that over 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by an eating disorder, with 400 new cases emerging each year.

Eating disorders claim over 80 lives in this country every single year, with 92 per cent of those affected being female.

In the latest in our Time To Talk series, which aims to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness in Ireland, Dr Maeve Hurley discusses the reality of suffering from an eating disorder and what friends and family can do to help.

Eating disorders are among the most misunderstood of illnesses.

An eating disorder is not primarily about food. Essentially, an eating disorder is a mental illness which manifests itself by severe disturbances in eating behaviour, and is characterised by isolation and separation.

It was revealed this week that there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of people contacting the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, Bodywhys, last year.

The organisation were quick to point out that the rise in people contacting the organisation was not necessarily due to a rise in eating disorders but rather an increase in awareness of mental health issues and a willingness to seek help.

It is a very encouraging sign that there is there is an upsurge in people choosing to make a call to Bodywhys looking for help and support for this hugely challenging illness. It is a sign that both eating disorders and mental illnesses are being de-stigmatised and that there is increased recognition of the need for help among sufferers.

Stressed young woman in bathroom

Half of these calls are from people not yet receiving professional help and that call could be the start of a conversation that begins the road to recovery and healing.

Eating disorders can be extremely destructive, both physically and emotionally, and many sufferers can find themselves spiralling into the dangerous cycle of the eating disorder without knowing how to stop it.

Eating disorders and relationships

Eating disorders tend to have a major negative impact on a person’s sense of self, as well as on their relationships with loved ones, be they family, partners or friends.

Like many mental illnesses, eating disorders can dominate people’s lives and affect their physical, psychological and social wellbeing. They can change the way people think, feel and behave, and research shows that a huge number of people lose contact with friends and loved ones while ill with an eating disorder.

People close to the sufferer can often feel rejected and kept at arms’ length in the relationship. While the helper’s natural instinct may be to simply encourage the person to eat, this can actually leave the sufferer feeling further misunderstood and alone and so drive them further away, or lead to tension and conflict.

Small portion of food on a big plate

Hope for recovery

There is always, always hope for recovery, no matter how deep into the eating disorder a person is. While relationships with loved ones can be impacted negatively by an eating disorder, they are also often the key to recovery.

Trying to help a person with an eating disorder can be frustrating and fraught with difficulty, but it is hugely important to their recovery and is one of the greatest things you can do for a friend, partner or family member.

Close relationships are key to establishing a ‘safe space’, where the person with an eating disorder can tell their story without being judged. By being present and actively listening to the person we will begin to understand the need the eating disorder is filling and together begin to explore alternatives.

Focusing on the person who is suffering and making a choice to love them, even though you may feel helpless and at a loss, and may indeed feel angry or frustrated at the person suffering from an eating disorder, could be paramount in their recovery.

Your support and continued presence can make all the difference.

Dr Maeve Hurley has worked as a GP in Ireland and the UK for 16 years and is founder of Ag Éisteacht, a charity which supports frontline workers in the health and education industries in their communications and interactions with clients and patients.

If you are suffering from an eating disorder and would like to seek help, you can access the BodyWhys website here.

If you would like to share your story as part of the #TimeToTalk series, you can get in touch by emailing us at [email protected]