Vince Withers is fuelled in his advocacy by the memory of the daughter he lost to an eating disorder, but he forges on to help saves lives of the ones he can do something about now.
The chair of the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador told members of the Rotary Club of Corner Brook said there’s been a lot of positive change since he began the foundation following the 2005 death of Renata.
However, there is still a long way to go, Withers said. He referred specifically to reports out of Clarenville pertaining to the poor treatment of and behaviour toward Carla Lamb, a sufferer of an eating disorder, who sought help at Cross Memorial Hospital last week. Although, he said he could be referring to just about anybody or any health care professional.
“You can go in and get your broken arm fixed, and get good service and go back so they fix it,” he said. “You go in and say you have depression or some kind of mental health/addictions issue, and it is hard to get the attention of the people who provide these services.”
An eating disorder — most commonly anorexia or bulimia — is a mental health problem. Withers said one out of three people suffering from a mental health issue come forward. Not only is it of vital importance to have that experience a positive one, to get that patient more comfortable with seeking help, but to have the services and resources in place when more people come forward.
What happens when all the effort to raise awareness and advocacy for people to seek help leads to two out of those three people with a mental health issue looking for support and treatment.
Withers said 20 per cent of youth in Newfoundland and Labrador suffer from a mental health issue. Then 15-20 per cent of those specifically have an eating disorder.
“It is an epidemic,” he said.
Early diagnosis and treatment is a key. If an eating disorder is not treated early, the death rate is 20 per cent, says Withers.
Dealing with the stigmas is one thing, according to the advocate, but the lack of services and treatment is another. One such service he is calling for is the establishment of a six-bed inpatient unit specifically to deal with eating disorders.
An eating disorder, although not limited to, primarily effects people between the ages of 12 and 24 — 80 per cent of which are female. There is not a lot of research into the causes of these disorders, according to Withers. He has talked to hundreds of young people effected, who have low self-esteem, and he says it is caused by such things as bullying and dysfunctional family issues. It is often a coping strategy of these youth.
“They look at food as the one thing they can control — how much they eat, what they eat, and how often they eat,” he said.
He said the world is different than decades ago. The pressures placed upon youth to get a good education and then a good job are immense. He said the entertainment and fashion industries preach thin as beautiful.
Withers said family support and nurturing is one constant that is needed in the treatment of eating disorders. He said the men and women should not, and often can not go through it alone.
When those necessary services and supports are not there, that is when those people have to stand up and be heard.
“As a caregiver, and I speak to myself as I think back to my own situation, you have to put your foot down if you don’t feel you are getting a fair shake in the system,” he said. “That person’s life depends on it. Being complacent and standing back won’t help you. If you are a passive participant, you are going to be sorry about that.”