Boys' quest for 'perfect body' fuels rise in eating disorders
Worrying 30pc increase in calls to Irish eating disorder helpline number were reported last year
A significant rise in the number of boys and young men suffering from eating disorders has contributed to a worrying 30pc jump in reports of the illness in Ireland, new figures obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal.
The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland this weekend confirmed a rise in young males, aged between 13 and 20, who contacted the service last year.
New statistics from the organisation's Bodywhys helpline show the majority of calls come from women aged between 25 and 35, but more males are reaching out than ever before.
"It's very important to get the message out that men get eating disorders too. It's not a gender specific mental health issue, men are just as susceptible and it something we are seeing much more of," Bodywhys psychotherapist and services co-ordinator, Harriet Parsons, told the Sunday Independent.
Shockingly, some parents didn't realise that boys could develop eating disorders.
Speaking in advance of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which starts tomorrow, Ms Parsons said some reasons men develop the condition include focus on "gym bodies" and "being buff".
"For a guy who is vulnerable or has low self-esteem, this might make them more susceptible to developing and eating disorder," she said.
But it's also more difficult for men to admit to a problem.
"It's much harder for men to come forward. It's perceived as such a female illness, so for men and for boys, there is often a double kind of stigma," Ms Parsons added.
The majority of callers to the helpline, both male and female, seeking support for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and unhealthy relationships with food, were aged between 25 and 35 years old. The second highest number of calls were from teenagers aged between 15 and 18.
"The increase is due to a combination of factors - the growing awareness around the issue and stigma is being reduced around mental health issues," Ms Parson said.
Bodywhys stressed that the rise in calls does not necessarily mean there has been an increase in people diagnosed with eating disorders.
But Ms Parsons added: "Despite the fear that may come from speaking out, it is positive to see many people coming forward for help and support."
The Department of Health and Children estimates that as many as 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by eating disorders. Despite age and gender differences, eating disorder symptoms generally present in the same way.
Early signs include: changes in personality, becoming more worried and controlling about their life, more focus on food, and changes in eating behaviour. "What we hear about with boys is that they become very fit focused and very diet focused in terms of protein," said Ms Parsons, who added that early intervention is key to recovery.
The average onset for an eating disorder is during the transitional age of 15 to 20.
"It's a very difficult time, they are learning who they are and taking on the idea of what it is to be a man and they are physically changing," she said.
"Yet the illness can develop at any age. Eating disorders are a coping mechanism. They are complex, often occur in secret, are not always obvious to others and, in some cases, may be a part of someone's life for a number of years."
Individuals with certain psychological and personality factors - such as being extremely driven and perfectionistic - can be more particularly vulnerable.
Dr Terrance Larkin, consultant psychiatrist at the Saint John of God Hospital in South Dublin, who has treated people with eating disorders for almost 40 years, said the modern obsession with having the "perfect image" is contributing to calls for help. "More information is available, but society is constantly bombarded with notions of the perfect image," he told the Sunday Independent.
"The 25-35 age group is particularly stressed at present with difficulties around employment, the dating scene and it's difficult to maintain relationships. Today's culture values visual stimulation rather than older moral or political or social values," he said, adding that a person with the condition often believes controlling their weight will help them cope better emotionally and socially.
However, these individuals end up losing control and numerous difficulties develop. "They find they can't just switch it off whether it's the weight loss anorexic type or whether it's the binge eating vomiting type," he said, adding it's not unusual for patients to check their weight three or four times a day.
In Dr Larkin's experience, around 10pc of people presenting with anorexia are males. Some of the reasons he believes men are now more vulnerable include: the explosion of gyms in Ireland, male cosmetic adverts and the fashion and slimming industries.
"In the gym, emphasis is not on exercising for fun or sport, it is actually on exercising in front of a mirror to become bigger," he said.
"Men are beginning to go down that road of overvaluing physical appearance, and self- esteem is becoming more and more dependant on that."
This week, St John of God's are launching a one-day-a-week treatment programme and Bodywhys are launching a four-week course to support parents of a child with an eating disorder