Treatment For Eating Disorders in the South Impeded by Regional Culture

By John Lavitt 04/24/15

Regional and religious pressures prevent those suffering from eating disorders from seeking treatment.

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With eating disorders increasing across America, help is desperately needed in the form of treatment options. Eating disorder statistics provided by the National Eating Disorder Association indicate that 10 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. In the Southern states, the obstacles of both religious belief and regional prejudices are preventing treatment from being accessed. Although more than 160,000 women in Alabama have an eating disorder, there is a little treatment available and even talking about the problem is difficult.

Megan Bendig, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Birmingham, believes women and girls in Alabama are at an increased risk for eating disorders because of negative cultural messages about mental health issues. She explained how, "the South has been slow to warm up to the idea that you can speak about mental illness out loud ... Eating disorders are a way for men and women to express suffering and manifest these things that they don't feel the ability verbalize."

The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Elizabeth McMurray, co-clinical director of A Center for Eating Disorders, explained how cultural barriers in the South can prevent treatment for those struggling with eating disorders from being accessed.

"The primary issue we see as a barrier to recovery is Southern Baptists," McMurray revealed. "For many, their faith tells them they shouldn't go to a therapist, that if they just pray on it, it will go away."

In addition, Bendig described how women in the South often feel pressure to be perfect. Such pressure can drive young women in particular to food-controlling behavior and the subsequent onset of eating disorders. Representations in the media can be harmful, but messages from family and friends can be even more damaging. "If there's a focus on exercise or body-shaming in the family, that can be really harmful," Bendig said.

McMurray illuminated the family challenge by shedding light on traditional obstacles. Eating disorder triggers can be harder to overcome down South because food is so closely tied to family gatherings. Families need to understand that food-centric celebrations are not at all celebratory for such patients. Eating disorders can be difficult to overcome, but recovery is possible if such regional barriers are recognized and addressed.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.