The Blog

The Costs of Eating Disorders: The Men's Perspective

Too often, eating disorders in men is taken less seriously and 'novel' given the ratio between men and women suffering meaning men are the minority. Men suffering who are clearly isolated and marginalised need not have their gender questioned or jokes made about their non-existent periods.

Last month, the UK's leading eating disorders charity Beat, launched a report with findings on the 'true cost' of eating disorders in UK commissioned to the PwC. In the first analysis of the report it found that out of 600,000 or more people sought hospital treatment and the bill came to £15 billion.

The cost was attributed to a number of factors and mainly delay in accessing services when they needed it. Out of all the 400 sufferers and 100 carers who contributed to the study, almost half of sufferers wait longer than a year after recognising symptoms before seeking help. The majority of respondants faced a year waiting to be diagnosed and then more than six months to get treatment. It was found that early intervention - opposed to waiting to crisis point - can cut the chance of relapsing by half.

Eating disorders are serious and complex illnesses and can only be treated with specialist help. 'Too much wait and see' is one of the key problems in access to services and for many making them more ill, meaning they take longer to get better.

"We know the massive impact that an eating disorder has on anyone affected, and their friends and family too," said Susan Ringwood of Beat. "The toll in terms of physical health and mental wellbeing; the effects on education and employment; on opportunities lost and to live life to the full are so sadly familiar to us."

The damning report shown that 320,000 men were admitted to hospital suffering with bulimia, anorexia and muscle dysmorphia last year- up 63 per cent in the past five years.

Men Get Eating Disorders Too, is by no means surprised at this increase and fears this figure may only be the tip of the iceberg. We know that many male sufferers and their carers struggle to seek the help they need due to the misconceptions and stereotypical gender assumptions.

Dave Chawner, 26, a stand-up comedian from London, was 17 when he started dieting after having to take his top off in an audition for a play. Originally quoted in the Independent, he articulately explains the difficulties he faced accessing help.

"Pressure was mounting in the form of university applications and exams, so I got into excessive exercising, excessive calorie-counting and weighing myself. I was anxious and didn't sleep. This carried on for about nine years," he said.

"On tour, there is a lot of pressure. I relapsed recently and ended up with numerous health defects, including brittle bones, enlarged red blood cells and dangerously high potassium levels from using laxatives for so long."

Typically, men with eating disorders will be unaware like Dave they have a problem. Even when they do they can go through a period of denial and ambivalent in seeking help. Men are infamous for never going to see their doctor, let alone for a stigmatised mental illness like anorexia.

In the instances where men do pluck up the courage to seek help they can often be ridiculed. Daniel Perry an office manager, has been suffering from eating disorder since the age of 15. But according to Daniel, he waited for two years to receive a life-saving ­cognitive behavioural therapy, while he was still living on dangerously low calorie-intake.

"I attempted suicide at one point - to not have the treatment puts lives at risk," Daniel said in an article in the Sunday Mirror, in which he laments therapies focus too much on women "One of the first things they would always ask is, 'Do you feel as if you were born a male?" He added that most of the treatment is geared toward women, with one nurse even jokingly asking if he'd started his period yet.

Too often, eating disorders in men is taken less seriously and 'novel' given the ratio between men and women suffering meaning men are the minority. Men suffering who are clearly isolated and marginalised need not have their gender questioned or jokes made about their non-existent periods. Instead they ought to be treated with dignity and respect like professionals would offer to any other vulnerable patient.

Unfortunately, it's not unusual for men like Daniel to be subjected to ignorance in relation to their gender. Men ought to receive equal care to women with an awareness and understanding that eating disorders have no gender. Ultimately eating disorders are indiscriminate and can affect anyone including those of any age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and social background.

However Dave gives us hope and reassurance that it isn't a negative experience for everyone seeking treatment. "When I was finally diagnosed as severely clinically anorexic, it was almost a relief. I was lucky to get all the help I needed through the NHS. I'd started having quite severe kidney pains that were keeping me awake, and my hair was falling out. Because I was so severe [the doctors] saw me very quickly."

"I cannot fault the help I've received, but anorexia has taken away my concentration, my ability to multitask, even some of my friends. I do look back at my teenage years now and think I should have been having a ball, but instead my health overruled me."

The PwC and Beat report is a breakthrough in terms of 'waking up' the government, commissioners and health practitioners to understand the importance of eating intervention. By putting a monetary value on the cost of eating disorders it puts perspective on the growing epidemic that is becoming unnecessarily costly. Whilst you can put a cost on a life, healthy lives are priceless and each is uniquely valuable.

Professor Janet Treasure, director of the eating disorders unit at King's College London, re-iterates that early intervention was "essential". She warned that, "Over time, untreated, eating disorders may become entrenched and made worse by changes in the brain as a result of "prolonged starvation and/or abnormal eating behaviours".

In my view eating disorders need not be costly if eating disorders are recognised more promptly and acted on quickly. No-one need get to the point where they require urgent hospital treatment, nor anyone lose their life.

Recommendations in the report state that better education is essential to address the barriers. This includes education staff, carers and family members as well as GPs and health professionals. Little training opportunities and easy-to-access resources are available for those in a supporting role.

Overall, the report makes it clear that better investment is needed to ensure that no-one is left struggling alone...