Visit an eating disorders clinic today and you’re likely to find that one in ten patients is male. Outside of medical settings, however, that number is thought to be far higher.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, of those living with an eating disorder in the UK, three in ten are men. Why? Because the male demographic is sorely neglected due to a tendency to focus on the more common experience of women.
“We think there are many, many men out there who don’t get any help at all,” says Dr Paul Robinson, our Director of Research and Development. Robinson pioneered the community-based treatment model for eating disorders and leads the MSc on Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition at University College London. Men are less likely than women to seek support for an eating disorder in the first place, he explains. “When you speak to them they feel they’ve got a female disease—as if a man shouldn’t have this,” Robinson says.
Hospitals have seen a 70% rise in male patients being admitted with eating disorders over the last six years. Experts attribute the growth to two things: the pressure social media and culture places on men to look a certain way, and improved awareness about men with eating disorders. Support for men is getting better, but there is still a long way to go.
Dr Robinson says that GPs are still much less likely to think of eating disorders when they see a male patient, so it typically takes them longer to diagnose the problem. Another common red herring is that a male patient’s BMI is more likely to be normal because of his increased muscle mass. However, as we know, someone’s BMI is not a reliable means of identifying an eating disorder. Nor does someone’s weight indicate the severity of their illness.
For instance, someone may develop an unhealthy relationship to exercise. Their gym visits become so regular and intense that they are to the detriment of their physical and mental health. Their body might fit a current, societal ‘ideal’ in terms of physique, but their mental health may be plummeting.
In the film Millstone, a documentary about the experiences of men with eating disorders, comedian and mental health campaigner Dave Chawner likens his anorexia as a game that he played with his soul. He describes how it became harder and harder to live with: “For every one time that I was winning at it, there would be ten times that I would feel awful… That I would try and make myself sick, that I would walk far too far, all of these diseased, abnormal traits that I did. And then the skew shifted… Every one time I felt good there’d be a hundred bad times… a thousand bad times.”
As Chawner reminds us at the end of the film, “No one gets through life unscathed. And men do get eating disorders too. It’s not anything to be embarrassed about and you’re not alone.” But the typical male experience is that patients do feel alone, even after seeking help. When they make it through the system into a clinic, many find that they are the only male in treatment, which can be particularly challenging in group therapy sessions. “Often they feel the subjects that come up in the group therapy are very oriented towards a woman’s experience”, Robinson says. And when men are admitted to an inpatient setting, they are usually put in a male ward where they are alone, separated from others who are going through a similar thing. For obvious reasons this isolation can be very harmful and potentially traumatising, magnifying or compounding the existing problem.
Our goal at Orri is to give male patients as good as chance as possible to recover, whatever “recovery” looks like to them. We want to ensure our patient demographic represents the true number of men who are struggling. Male patients will have a male psychiatrist to work with, and in therapy sessions we will address issues such as muscularity, over-exercising and masculinity, as well as relationships with women and sexuality.
At Orri, we don’t just focus on the physical manifestation of the eating disorder, but instead seek to get to the root of the problem, exploring how it has evolved and tackling the underlying issues that are reinforcing it. If the man is gay or bisexual, for example, the relationship between the eating disorder and sexuality would be addressed.
No matter who they are , our multi-disciplinary team of experts will equip every patient with the real-life tools they need for their recovery journey. And our flexible approach means that treatment can fit in with their everyday life.