It’s happened so many times now, I have lost count. The faces of these clients all come to me in moments of prayer. The pervasiveness of eating disorders. The deadliness. The complexity. You would think this would be the most heartbreaking part of my job.
The average recovery rate for a person struggling with an eating disorder is 2-7 years. Eating disorders are the most deadly mental health condition; without treatment it is estimated that 20% of people struggling with an eating disorder will lose their life. Eating disorders are accompanied by complex medical concerns and require an entire team for treatment, and affordable access to these resources is incredibly limited. Those are daunting statistics but it’s a challenge I accepted when I went into this field as an eating disorder specialist, and I am encouraged by the knowledge that full recovery is 100% possible. After doing this work, not much can phase me. However, the thing I am most haunted by are the clients who have been harmed by the church. I can close my eyes now and see the tear-streamed faces, confused and stuck because of something they learned in Sunday school.
It shouldn’t be this way. The church should never be a stumbling block to recovery. Yet these client’s are describing experiences that I have encountered myself in church.
People labeling their eating disorder as a sin.
People telling them to “let go of their need to control and let God.”
People telling them that they can “just pray” themselves out of their eating disorder.
People being sent to well-meaning but untrained Christian counselors (note: my issue is not with Christian counselors–I know some phenomenal ones–but with clinicians who treat eating disorder therapy without appropriate training).
People giving dieting advice or making body appearance/shape/weight comments. This is rampant in our churches. Sometimes I play a game with myself and count how many times I hear or overhear it on a given Sunday. Try it this Sunday, and you may be surprised!
People reminding my struggling clients how good they have it in life, compared to people in other countries.
There are so many ways our churches perpetuate stigma. World Eating Disorders Action Day was June 2, and I just don’t think I would be doing my job well if I didn’t take the time to help my church community end the stigma of eating disorders among their pews.
What can you do to end the stigma of eating disorders in your church?
- Understand that eating disorders are not a choice. No one would choose this. There are genetic and environmental components that are far outside a person’s control.
- Stop saying eating disorders are all about control! Eating disorders can be about a lot of things. They are much more complex than this. I have seen over 50 individual clients this year and none of them had one single identifiable cause to their eating disorder.
- Labeling an eating disorder as sin only keeps people in a relentless shame cycle. Trust me, my clients don’t need any extra shame! Sin implies they had a choice. I see clients as young as nine years old, and some of my colleagues have seven- and eight-year-old clients battling for their lives. I can’t believe for a second that these seven-year-old clients are sinning. Eating disorder behaviors are symptoms, not sins.
- I think praying is a wonderful thing to do and can be a supportive part of treatment. I pray for my clients every single day. I also use the best evidenced-based treatment possible to help them recover. Prayer alone will not help a person recover.
- A therapist specifically trained in eating disorders is essential to recovery. I can’t tell you the horror stories I have heard. A trained therapist will know that working with an eating disorder dietitian is essential, who to refer to for medical care (general practice doctors are generally not trained to treat eating disorders), and will be trained in the best practices to treat eating disorders. Here is a search feature to find trained professionals in your area.
- Giving appearance-based comments to a person struggling with an eating disorder is a dangerous game. If you say, “You look great!” they will often hear this as, “You look like you are gaining weight.” Also, this is just reinforcing the false notion that eating disorders are all about weight and appearance. This is what I try to get my clients to move past, to see what is really going on when they are having difficult thoughts and feelings about their body and appearance. These comments also send the signal that these things should be the central focus.
- Comparing pain won’t help a person recover. This will also send someone struggling into a shame cycle. Shame is never a powerful motivator for change. Eating disorders are a worldwide issue, and eating disorders are on the rise in even non-westernized countries.
Here I am sitting in my office, with one of the most incredible Christian women I know. She has done incredible things for the kingdom, even in the thick of her disorder. I have sat with her for an hour each week and will sit with her for hours more. My job is to hold space for all that life has thrown at her. To help her see the unseeable and to develop workable skills for those times when life is guaranteed to be tough. I am watching her loop around and around because of all of the messages she has received about struggling in her church. Sin less. Love God more. Go on a mission trip and that will cure you. Just when we seem to be making progress she returns to this: “Why can’t I just be better, do better, love God more?”
I wish, for her, getting unstuck would be as easy as a bullet point list. But, the messages are so layered and internalized. It’s going to take some time to undo them. Sadly, her church has colluded with her eating disorder voice, and they have made a disastrous team. Our job will be to listen hard for the healthy self deep inside her, it is there. It is telling her to live life fully. It is begging the church to provide a safe haven. This healthy self that is a part of my client is hoping for recovery. They need you to hope alongside them.
Celeste Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and eating disorder specialist from Tyler, Texas. Celeste and her husband have been in youth ministry for 16 years and currently work for Glenwood Church of Christ. She is passionate about self care, self acceptance, intuitive eating, and the church. Celeste desires to advocate for the church to become a safer space to those experiencing mental health struggles. She loves youth ministry, reading, spending time with her three children, coffee on the porch with her husband, road trips, and backpacking.