Eating Disorders in the Military: An Issue That Can No Longer Be Overlooked

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Athena McDowall

I have been involved in the eating disorder community for a long time, for I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was in eighth grade. I will not lie, I did not think that I would become as heavily involved as I am now, for after two stays at separate treatment programs I thought I had finally recovered for good. It was during that time, when I thought I had finally beat my eating disorder, that I enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard. However, after my enlistment and time in the service I realized that recovery is a very delicate, lifelong process that can be quickly thrown out of balance if an individual is forced to face certain circumstances.

I never thought that the one thing that would cause me to relapse would be my time serving in the military, but here I am today. Throughout my time in service I knew that something was not right, that my once positive mindset regarding recovery was dissipating by the minute, but I never knew the extent of it until I went on my first (and only) deployment. It was there that I realized that I was spiraling, and that no one around me knew how to help. In fact, the interventions that were given to me did the exact opposite of help, for they caused me to feel even more alone and isolated from my fellow soldiers. Following my time overseas I was sent back to the United States and eventually gained access to adequate treatment for my eating disorder, but it was a long and difficult process to get there.

I was repeatedly told that eating disorders are a rare occurrence in the military, which is why there were so little resources for me to access. In addition, the military medical staff stated that they had to start from scratch in terms of finding me adequate treatment, for they had never had to deal with anyone with an eating disorder before. I felt alone and scared, for as I was waiting to gain access to some sort of treatment I was still struggling and had no one to turn to for help that understood my struggles. 

After months of waiting I was sent to an inpatient treatment center, where I quickly met several other individuals who also came from a military background. I was confused, for I was made to believe that I was an anomaly for even struggling with an eating disorder in the military. I quickly discovered that the specific program that I was in was one of the only ones that accept Tricare as a form of insurance, which is the type of medical insurance that active-duty military personnel have to pay for medical treatment performed outside of the military medical facilities. 

Upon discharge from treatment, I conducted my own research and discovered that eating disorders are much more common in the military than I had once thought. However, there is a glaring detail missing from the statistics surrounding military personnel and eating disorders, and that is the fact that the numbers only showcase those who came forth and disclosed their symptoms to the medical personnel that they were working with. The truth is that there is a large stigma in the military surrounding any form of mental illness, especially when it comes to eating disorders. What this means is that despite the statistics stating that there are military personnel suffering from eating disorders, the true numbers are likely far greater because soldiers are afraid of being reprimanded for reporting their mental health struggles. This is why I urge those in military leadership positions to consider not only conducting further, anonymous research on how many individuals in the military showcase eating disorder symptoms, but also to further train their own medical personnel to understand such symptoms and help soldiers gain access to the treatment programs that they greatly need.

Athena McDowall is a recent graduate of the Rutgers University Masters of Social Work Program. Athena plans on pursuing a career in providing both individual and group therapy to veterans at Symmetry of Self Counseling Center in West Deptford, New Jersey. In addition, Athena is excited to continue to volunteer as the Philadelphia NEDA Walk Coordinator and to get more involved in the Philadelphia Body Empowerment Project, which is a nonprofit organization designed to decrease eating disorder risk in adolescents by providing them with the skills to live peacefully and healthfully in their bodies. Athena hopes to increase the awareness of eating disorders in the military by sharing her own story and advocating for positive changes to be made with regards to the treatment options that both active duty service members and veterans have.