“Anorexia nervosa” literally means “loss of appetite due to nerves.” It is a mental illness that has a higher mortality rate than even depression. The anorexic suffers irrational fear of gaining weight caused by a combination of cultural, familial, and biological factors. Seeing oneself as fat, even when wasting away, the anorexic rigidly controls caloric intake. In the related syndrome of bulimia, one binges on food and then purges the body by vomiting or taking laxatives or diuretics.
Anorexia usually appears in adolescence or young adulthood, though symptoms have been noted in older persons and increasingly in younger children. There are around 2.5 million anorexics in the United States. Once considered a white, middle class, female malady, this disease is increasingly seen among the working class, minorities, boys and the middle-aged.
The typical anorexic is achievement oriented, outwardly compliant, and inwardly afraid of growing up and making her own decisions.
Contemporary Western society places extreme emphasis on a thin, young-looking appearance, especially for women. Anorexics do seem to look young and thin; thus, many young women are attracted to this behavior and fall victim to the disease. Mothers and fathers may set unfair expectations of achievement and appearance for their children-another causal factor in anorexia. Also, underparenting and overcontrol may cause children to become anorexic. However, studies are showing that anorexia may also be linked to a genetic disposition, triggered by the external factors mentioned above.
Treatment is a long, gradual process. Many recover. Some will lead a limited life. Others may die from attendant physical complications or from suicide.
While traditional approaches have side-lined the parents, blaming them in part for the sickness, more family-oriented therapies are being encouraged when families are healthy. Parents and friends of the anorexic must let go of their own guilt feelings and limit their giving advice; they must give the anorexic freedom to fail, and to grow and be oneself, though, in cases of young children, more interventionary methods may be required. Most of all, families must provide love and trust and encourage the anorexic’s independence and initiative. Everyone involved must accept the long-term nature of this illness.
Youth workers must speak against the powerful aspects of a materialistic culture’s media manipulation. Affirm the created beauty of each person. Young people need encouragement and support to build their self-image and worldview.
Youth leaders must be strong role models as adults concerned for the independence and growth of each individual. Lovingly and respectfully challenge youth “to grow up.”
Effective youth work builds a caring community that offers acceptance, forgiveness, and encouragement to vulnerable teenagers.