The National Eating Disorders Association: A Volunteer's Perspective
All of us have been engaged in extracurricular activities at one time or another. One in particular that has stood out to me has been my experience volunteering at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). I believe that the lessons I have learned through working at NEDA are not only worthy of being spoken about, but necessary, due to their widespread and prominent effect.
Richelle Goodrich, noted writer and author once wrote, “there are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don't yearn to reach out, but because they've tried and found no one who cares.”
Responding to this need, the National Eating Disorders Association was founded to provide support for individuals and families affected by eating disorders and to provide access to quality care. The founders of the organization realized that, among the many gifts of social media, the ability to connect to others and guide them through their struggles is perhaps the greatest. This organization has a powerful mission, as those who reach out for help often feel judged and misunderstood. For those suffering with eating disorders, having someone to confide in, who understands what they are going through, is critical for recovery. Moreover, knowing who to reach out to for clinical help, such as eating disorder specialists, is a key component in regaining one’s health. NEDA works to provide the aforementioned services and resources for those in need.
I began working at the National Eating Disorders Association as a Helpline volunteer in the spring semester of my sophomore year. In this capacity, I speak with those who who feel ready to reach out for help. It is essential to note that I, and all volunteers at NEDA, do not offer counseling, which is the provision of assistance and guidance. Rather, we offer support, information, and resources. We receive extensive training, and we conduct searches for eating disorder specialists in geographic proximity to our callers.
Reflecting on nearly a year at NEDA, I have come to recognize the impact of this experience on me. I am deeply moved by the struggles, stories, hopes, and dreams of those with whom I speak. They have made me laugh, they have made me cry, and they have forever altered the way in which I view the human condition. The grit, fortitude, and motivation that so many of my callers display is astounding, and the fact that they keep trying to move forward despite numerous obstacles in their way is inspiring.
Once I began working at NEDA, I had a few unlikely personal revelations: I experience a renewed sense of purpose at the conclusion of every call or shift, and conversely, almost nothing demoralizes me quite as much as realizing that there are those suffering who are out of reach of clinical care due to their location or insurance policy.
Given my time on the Helpline, two phenomena struck me as being of note.
Firstly, there is growth in the number of men who are coming forward to report eating disorders. For a long time, eating disorders were thought to be the exclusive domain of women. We have witnessed a shift, in that men, once highly stigmatized for coming forward or unaware that they might have an eating disorder altogether, reach out more for assistance in order to achieve recovery. Many of the calls I receive are from men, and I am proud to be part of a generation in which we acknowledge that all types of people can struggle.
In a similar vein, several studies indicate a rise in eating disorders for Jewish women, ranging from the irreligious to the ultra-orthodox. One study even posits that Jewish Orthodox females have eating disorders at a rate about 50 percent higher than the general U.S. population (Sacker, 1996). These eating disorders manifest themselves similarly to those in the secular world, but what differs is the way in which our culture responds to them. According to the Washington Post, health experts say eating disorders are “underreported among Orthodox Jewish women and, to a lesser extent, others in the Jewish community, as many families are reluctant to acknowledge the illness at all and often seek help only when a girl is on the verge of hospitalization.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association, this reluctance to acknowledge an eating disorder is impacted by fear of stigmatization for any mental health illness in many corners of the Orthodox world. This comes in addition to several other factors affecting the reporting of eating disorders in Jewish communities including the importance placed on being thin for marriage arrangements. Jewish girls may also turn to eating disorders as an attempt to achieve perfection and control, as a coping mechanism, or to express prior trauma. Additionally, the focus on food during Shabbat within the Orthodox Jewish community is thought to exacerbate this issue.
With increasing awareness of the prevalence and seriousness of eating disorders, the Orthodox Jewish community has slowly begun to address these issues as well. In my eyes, one of the ways our community can fight against stigmatization is to understand the facts. By rectifying false assumptions about eating disorders, everyone will get better access to diagnosis and treatment.
“The scope and severity of eating disorders are often misunderstood. Eating disorders are serious illnesses, not lifestyle choices. In fact, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness” (NEDA). In the United States, there are 20 million women and 10 million men suffering from a clinically significant eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). Eating disorders are mental illnesses that can affect people of every gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group. Notably, a person does not have to be underweight in order to have an eating disorder. The cause of eating disorders is unknown, but a growing consensus suggests that a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors come together to spark an eating disorder. Once the disorder has taken hold, it can become a self-sustaining process that usually requires professional help and support to recover. With inadequate treatment, eating disorders can be deadly, with heart failure and suicide as two of the most common causes of death.
Taking the time to be sensitive about how you speak about body image can help alter the perceptions of those around you. Eating disorders are often silent and may appear in the most unexpected people or friends. If you fear that someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, there are avenues for you to seek guidance, including Yeshiva University’s Counseling Center and NEDA. Many of NEDA’s callers are friends and family of those suffering with an eating disorder, inquiring how to best understand and support loved ones who struggle. There is also a plethora of information available on NEDA’s website for family and friends.
And to those of you who are currently struggling: you can get through this. This disorder does not have to overtake your life any longer. Please feel free to reach out for help on the helpline, via chat on our website, or to YU’s Counseling Center. Those at NEDA and the Counseling Center are here to listen to you and support you.
National Eating Disorders Association’s Website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
You can reach the Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or online at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline