Wake up call: Eating disorders are the second most lethal illness for adults, second only to opioids

eating disorders kill children
Posted at 4:28 PM, May 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-04 20:04:50-04

The COVID-19 pandemic has been followed by a mental health pandemic and many don’t realize how many of those suffering are also living in silence with an eating disorder. Nearly 29 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and Mackenzie Carmichael is one of them.

“I acquired this obsession with control and it specifically led to an unhealthy relationship with food, with eating, with my body," Carmichael said.

She thought she was the exception with her eating disorder but turns out she’s far from it. Eating disorders are the second most lethal illness for adults, second only to opioids, and for children and adolescents, it is the most lethal. That statistic should be a wake-up call and it's why Carmichael is hoping to help others by sharing her story.

“So I’m 28 and when I was 11 or 12, that’s when I acquired my eating disorder," Carmichael explained. “So I got an outpatient team of a therapist and dietitian and went once or twice a week, starting at the beginning, and did that all the way through high school, all the way through senior year. All that's to say, it didn’t stick.”

It wasn’t until she was 26 that she finally got the right care.

“And I truly hit rock bottom. I was 26 and my two best friends approached me and it was the deepest heart to heart I’ve ever had," Carmichael said. “They opened my eyes to the fact that I was extremely unhealthy in my weight, in my mental state, just the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing or recognize those unhealthy patterns I was doing.”

She left home and left college, and made her way to Denver, to the Eating Recovery Center’s inpatient program.

“I completely trusted the system, I just completely let go and I completely got my life back," Carmichael said.

She is just one of the thousands of people who don’t have the right kind of care in their own community, except unlike Mackenzie, many others never seek out help. Elizabeth Easton is the director of psychotherapy at Eating Recovery Center.

“I think it’s upwards of 70% of people don’t reach out because of the stigma and their fear of what it would be like to actually get treatment," Easton said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve actually seen ER visits, for adolescent girls in particular, double.”

As a country, she points out, we don’t have nearly the amount of recovery centers and resources needed for the number of people suffering.

“I think first and foremost we need to get the word out more to clinicians physicians dietitians of what eating disorders even are so no matter where they leave, whatever resources they have in their town they can identify something is going on and then connect to resources like us who have centers across the country," Easton said.

Second, they have stepped up their virtual services. 

“We moved to these five different programs to be offered virtually in 21 different states," Easton said.

She noticed back in 2011 how important reaching rural communities and those who don’t have the right resources is but now it’s needed more than ever.

“And I remember being pretty astonished that our first few patients even then were coming from more rural towns in Colorado, and the also from Montana, Kansas, Alaska, places really all over the country even up to the northeast Rhode Island Vermont etc.," Easton said.

Even in the last year 72% of their patient population comes from outside of Denver.

“I think part of the reason for the lack of centers and resources around the country is that people really haven’t taken this illness seriously," Easton said. “Ultimately we know this thrives in secrecy and isolation and that’s why we’re seeing eating disorders in such a worse place.”

Treatment saved Mackenzie’s life and it can save others. As these experts point out, more centers, more options and more access is what’s needed to get more people on the other side of recovery.

“And I’m two years out of treatment and we still say I am still in recovery but I am sustaining that recovery and I am so far from where I was which is a true testament to the fact that I am willing to talk to you right now and share my story with others," Easton said.