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Stigma: The Largest Barrier to Eating Disorder Treatment

By Carla Roman--BBC recently published a piece entitled, “Fear over eating disorder care in Japan.” The title of this article says it all. Some countries do not offer proper treatment for eating disorders. But the reason why countries like Japan do not have proper care set up for those struggling has nothing to do with the medical system. Rather, these disorders are going untreated because of a social taboo that still exists.

Much like Motoko’s story in the article, people and societies that still stigmatize mental issues would rather not have anyone know. Motoko’s parents refused to let her see a doctor or tell anyone her issues. Sadly, this is a common thread.

When a culture stigmatizes eating disorders, it attaches a shame to the disorder. The shame is not only for the person suffering but also for those around him/her. Family, friends and peers would rather look the other way than address an uncomfortable issue. The language for the issue/disorder does not exist because as a society it has gone unrecognized and unaddressed.

                          Read more: Mythbusters: The Eating Disorder Edition

According to the article, doctors estimate that just as many people in Japan suffer from eating disorders as in the UK. But when comparing numbers, BBC notes that only 10,000 people were getting treatment in Japan as compared to 725,000 in the UK. The disparity exists because in the UK, there is an open conversation about mental disorders, including eating disorders.

Also, in the UK, there is not as much of a stigma in mainstream news and society around mental disorders. Japan, like many other countries, need to first address the way eating disorders are approached socially in order to begin addressing the issue. The conversation needs to be judgment-free so people who are struggling can ask for help.

Eating disorders are still taboo and kept hidden in many parts of the world. In Japan, for example, thin and fair-skinned women are seen as the beauty ideal, and being less than ideal can be seen as abnormal and shameful. Family and social pressure to fit that mold and represent the country’s definition of beautiful can be overwhelming. In countries like Japan, where there is still a heavy emphasis on respecting what your family’s wishes and the dominant ideology casts you as a reflection of your family, status and upbringing, this is a huge issue.

                 Read more: "Just a Little Eating Disorder": Getting the Help I Deserve

I come from a city in Colombia in which body image and pressure for enhancement is a huge issue. Eating disorders, along with stress and anxiety, are conditions that are unrecognized and misunderstood in this city. Yet there are 15-year-olds going under the knife for all different kinds of cosmetic procedures. But when talking about eating disorders or body dysmorphia, most people in Colombia refuse to engage and they change the subject. In Colombia, you are sometimes valued by how you look, both by your own family and society. It’s a tough issue, and it stems from a way of thinking that objectifies the female body and uses it as a representation of what is beautiful for their society and country.

As time goes on and more people speak up about their struggles like Motoko did in Japan, hopefully things will change. Hopefully, countries like Japan will begin to see that mental disorders can be just as life threatening as any other medical condition. Once the conversation starts and awareness of the seriousness of mental disorders is brought to light, perhaps countries like Japan will get people the help and support they need.

About the blogger: Carla Roman is a 23-year-old who loves books, films, writing and spending time with her one-year-old Shiba Inu. Carla has a bachelor of arts in English and communications from the State University of New York at Albany and works in the publishing industry.

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