In the West, eating disorders are well-known, well-characterised, and are thought to be increasing in frequency. This is due to a range of societal factors, of which the advent of social media is often highlighted. In India, however, eating disorders do not have official figures, are all but unstudied, and those who have them may be suffering in silence.
Studies are few and far between
Some experts believe the number of individuals in India suffering from an eating disorder could be reasonably high. “Disturbed eating attitudes and behaviours affect about 25 to forty percent of adolescent girls and around twenty percent of adolescent boys,” according to Dr Udipi Gauthamadas, a Chennai-based neuro-behavioural medicine expert specialising in treating eating disorders. “While on one hand there is increasing recognition of eating disorders in the country, there is also a persisting belief that this illness is alien to India. This prevents many sufferers from seeking professional help.”
Worth noting is that Dr Gauthamadas’s analysis takes into account “disturbed eating attitudes” rather than specifically noting individual conditions. This entails that the figure to be potentially higher than would be accounted for if only specified conditions were accounted for.
As mentioned, there is a belief that eating disorders are a Western problem and one that does not occur in India. This in itself is a barrier to diagnosis, as it adds to the stigma associated with the conditions and may discourage sufferers from coming forward. It is for this reason that specific conditions are far more difficult to account for in India.
Some studies — though few and far between — have analysed incidence rates for specific conditions. One study determined the rate of anorexia nervosa — one of the most widely known eating disorders in which an individual is typically dangerously underweight — to be ten per 100,000 in Indian males, and 37.2 per 100,000 in Indian females.
Is modern technology exacerbating the issue?
Other conditions that fall under the umbrella term of eating disorders are binge eating and bulimia. Consistently, these conditions tend to occur more so in females than in males. This is often accounted for by societal pressures. Many articles point to a western social construct of “thin is beautiful’”.
Modern technologies such as social media are adding to these pressures. With many young girls swayed by Instagram fitness models and the constant pressure to share images of themselves on social media, self-esteem issues are becoming ever more common. With these self-esteem issues, dysfunctional attitudes often develop regarding food in an attempt to remain as thin as possible. The opposite is also the case, with some turning to binge eating as a means of comfort.
There are however a host of factors that may influence a person towards unhealthy eating habits. Some are believed to hold a genetic susceptibility towards eating disorders, though most of the causes tend to be environmental.
Some factors may include peer pressure (often more rigidly enforced by social media), negative self image, perfectionist attitudes, or a host of traumatic circumstances which may have occurred during the person’s life.
India’s continued neglect of mental illness
Eating disorders are a mental health issue. Mental health is a problem that India has long ignored. Around 150 million Indians are in need of mental healthcare. This is according to government data, which placed the number of Indians with mental health problems at 10.6 percent. Depression alone affects 56 million people and anxiety disorders affecting 38 million. Despite the overwhelming numbers of those who require help, a mere ten percent of those who require mental healthcare can avail it.
Other mental health issues such as depression are, at the very least, studied to some degree. Numbers for those who suffer from the condition are widely available and are now being reported on more often, bringing awareness to the condition. For eating disorders, this is still not the case.
Studies are lacking and public perception on the issue is perhaps even further behind than that of other mental health problems. Both eating disorders and conditions such as depression are highly stigmatised by many members of the public. They are not conditions that individuals are willing to be open about for fear of discrimination, and so, many people go undiagnosed, and untreated.
This presents a dangerous situation in which people with the disorders are under further pressure, both in dealing with the condition and also hiding it from others. It is vital that attempts are made to bring eating disorders, as well as other mental health conditions to the public eye. Doing so may allow sufferers to open up about the condition, making them more likely to seek the help they need.