Men’s Health Week: why men still experience stigma when living with an eating disorder.

There is no “one way” to have an eating disorder. How they manifest both physically and mentally is unique to each individual, yet stereotypes and myths prevail that create barriers to individuals accessing help. Today we explore why men continue to face unique barriers to eating disorder support.

We explore this more below and identify what Orri does as an organisation to facilitate supportive and compassionate care.

The eating disorder charity, Beat, estimates that nearly a third of a million men have an eating disorder in the UK.

On average, eating disorders last a third longer in men than they do in women, and this is likely due to the fact that men have to wait longer before receiving treatment.

Despite improvements in eating disorder awareness, what persists is a mistaken rhetoric that eating disorders are “female” illnesses, often perpetuated by the belief that in order to have an eating disorder, you must look a certain way, weigh a certain amount, or be overly preoccupied by appearance. In light of this, it is not surprising that men may feel ambivalent in seeking treatment and support. We have been reflecting on this stark reality during Men’s Health Week and asked – what can we do better?

To try and understand what an experience of a man navigating eating disorder treatment and recovery is like, we spoke with Adam Fare.

On Tuesday evening, Kerrie, CEO & Founder, Andrew, Psychotherapist, joined Adam for a live discussion over on Orri’s Instagram on this topic. They explored societal attitudes towards men accessing treatment for eating disorders, and Adam kindly shared his personal experience of recovery and seeking eating disorder support.

Growing up in Cumbria, Adam shared that his eating disorder began when he was only 11-years-old. The symptoms intensified after returning from a family holiday and when he moved to secondary school. Admitting he struggled with adapting to change, Adam sought support from his family and school. However, he was met with a naive response from a GP, who told him to simply, “go home and eat more.” It was this attitude that Adam, unsurprisingly, felt put off seeking further eating disorder support, until 3 – 4 years later.

At this point, his eating disorder had progressed and was also diagnosed with autism and ADHD (co-occurring conditions commonly diagnosed alongside eating disorders).

“I’m not recovered, I’ll admit that. I have good family support and a really good community around me… I don’t want someone to go through what I am going through.

I’ve experienced the trials and tribulations to try and get help… I have never been ‘not well enough’ to seek support.” Adam

As we have mentioned before, it is our belief that eating disorder treatment should meet you where you are – no matter who you are or how your eating disorder is manifesting in your life. However, unfortunately, this is not the case for many who seek eating disorder treatment, Adam included.

As we highlighted in last year’s blog, the barriers men face in accessing support are unique and specific and prevent them from the early intervention that’s so crucial for eating disorder recovery. Kerrie shared how Adam’s story was reflective of many stories she has heard over the twenty years she has worked in the eating disorder field, from young and older men. How is this still the case, today?

“I feel very sad for that 11-year-old who took the brave step with his family to reach out for support and wasn’t met with help.” Kerrie

All eating disorders ‘look’ different, but because the male experience of an eating disorder may contradict or not align with the stereotype of the ‘female’ illness, GPs may struggle to identify or diagnose an eating disorder, referring men on because the physical expression of the illness does not align with typical assessment criteria.

On top of this, compared with heterosexual men, gay and bisexual men have a higher prevalence of Bulimia, subclinical bulimia, and any subclinical eating disorder. Here, “subclinical” refers to “a disease which is not severe enough to present definite or readily observable symptoms.” What that means, in reality, is not that the distress or impact of the illness is any ‘less’, but rather that the typical criteria through which someone is “diagnosed” is not met.

This presents a number of unique challenges for men when they are looking to access treatment. Significantly more awareness and discussion around this is required to ensure that people in this situation can reach out and get access to the support they both need and deserve.

An Orri community member asked Adam, ‘what would you like to see more of in eating disorder treatment?’

He responds:

Individualised support, beyond simply looking at food/weight, but the holistic person. “Recovery” is a holistic thing, and encompasses our physical, mental, social, financial and environmental health. We need to create safer spaces for people to explore themselves and find out who they are. Recovery can be scary as we don’t know who we will become (or don’t think we do).

I’d also like to see much more support for Neurodivergent people with eating disorders who may not be as receptive to traditional eating disorder treatments which are currently the gold-standard or “evidence-based” treatments.

I would love more awareness and education of exercise addiction and its impact as well, I think this is more common than many believe.

Bowel issues, both due to the eating disorder and pre-existing, as well as wider conversations between the links between eating disorders and physical health issues. Recovery should integrate a holistic view.

Finally, we need more funding for services so they can help everyone with eating disorders, not just a very narrow section of sufferers. Eating disorders come in all body sizes, ages, genders, ethnicities etc. and we need more research and ability for everyone to access timely, targeted and personalised support, free from any bias or stigma.

During the discussion, Andrew asked Adam, ‘what myths would you like to bust about men and eating disorders?’

His response:

  1. I don’t think they are as different as many seem to think they are
  2. Many more men have eating disorders than we know about
  3. Not all male eating disorders are due to body dysmorphia
  4. But body dysmorphia is a major issue, especially in younger men
  5. Eating disorder treatment seems to take eating disorders in men as a completely different illness, when I believe we just need personalised and individualised care, regardless of someone’s gender or their sex assigned at birth. The only main differences are due to anatomical and hormonal differences in my view

It is with Adam’s strength, perseverance and hope to live a life recovered from his eating disorder, that keeps him going.

“In eating disorder treatment, it is so important to ‘find’ the person in the process, and to take the time to work out and with them what will make the different for their recovery, as an individual.” Kerrie

At Orri, we work holistically following a stepped approach to treatment, so that every client’s programme is appropriate to their individual needs and evolves with them over time. For, everyone’s recovery looks different, so our programmes recognise and reflect that.

We are also proud to hold spaces (online and in person) to have important, and often difficult, discussions to challenge the outdated narratives and attitudes of eating disorders. We treat every person who comes through our door – male, female or other – with respect for their individual journey and unique story.

This also in our culture within our team. Andrew facilitates a Men’s Group, for Orri’s male staff. He says:

“At Orri we run a men’s group for male staff, the men’s group is a form of direct action that acknowledges and addresses the negative aspects of masculine role performance. In the men’s group the route to change is through mutual reflection, recognition, and support.

We meet weekly to explore challenges faced, impasses reached and move towards exploring each of us finds ourselves conforming or transgressing the traditional stereotype of man. Working in a caring role that has traditionally been considered a female profession we explore how we can perform masculinity in a way that honours the many parts of ourselves.”

Below is an insight of Men’s Group, featuring Eating Disorder Associates, Luke and Liam; Orri’s Chef, Ben; Health, Safety & Compliance Officer, Simon; and behind-the-camera, Andrew.

To find out more about our specialist treatment, you can visit our In Person or Online pages.

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