With the recent announcement of To the Bone, a film based on the experience of the film’s director Marti Noxon as she struggled to recover from anorexia, and the announcement from Troian Bellisario, star of the hit television series Pretty Little Liars, that she is also working on a project surrounding her struggle with an eating disorder, it’s safe to say that the internet is buzzing and the topic of eating disorders is coming to the forefront for the moment. Controversy has surrounded To the Bone as critics fear that the film glamorizes eating disorders and it’s not hard to find someone on social media falling on one side of the argument or the other. But where does the church come into the picture when it comes to eating disorders?
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that approximately eight million people in the United States are battling an eating disorder. And yet, oddly enough, it’s an issue the church is mostly silent on and seemingly uneducated on for the most part. People in the church with an eating disorder are often made to feel as if their disorder is a choice and that they could stop at any point (this couldn’t be further from the truth). They are made to feel like a good Christian would just eat like they should and stop the behaviors. They are made to feel guilty for not “caring for their temple.” So how does the church do better at reaching these hurting people?
The Church Needs to Take Mental Illness Seriously
Take steps to have an educated staff. Many local organizations that work with mental illness in the community are happy to provide training sessions. For smaller areas where that may not be available, many national organizations are happy to provide resources and the ability to do research with the click of a thumb on your phone in 2017 makes ignorance an unacceptable excuse. When we ignore the seriousness of mental illness, the church, who should be leading the way to help hurting people, is allowing them to continue to suffer in silence. The church should be taking initiative to have support systems in place. The simple act of showing that it’s a priority can provide hope to people who need something to cling to.
Understand that Mental Illness is Never a Choice
Jesus embodied compassion and empathy and as followers of Christ seeking to be like Him, we should do the same. We’ve got to abandon the holier than thou attitudes and sit with people in their pain. We’ve got to get uncomfortable and be vulnerable with people. People who are struggling with an eating disorder are in pain. Their entire world is taken over by the obsessive thoughts and schedules that come with the disorder. It is lonely and isolating and definitely not something that any person would choose.
Support People As They Get the Help They Need
We have to stop projecting this belief that Christians shouldn’t have to take medicine for mental illness. We wouldn’t say that to someone with cancer and we shouldn’t say it to someone battling mental illness. We should be a support system as a body of believers for the treatment plan mapped out by doctors. Offer to be an accountability person for someone in treatment and ask them what you can do to help them stick to their treatment plan.
End the Guilt Trips
We’ve got to stop making people with an eating disorder feel guilty and we have to leave the judgment behind. For some reason there is this widespread comfort in judging something that we don’t understand, but it does nothing but hurt a person who is already hurting. Instead of placing guilt on a hurting person for something out of their control, take their hand and pray for them. Let them know that you’re not going anywhere. Remind them that you know that they didn’t choose to have an eating disorder and that you do not view this as some sort of attention seeking behavior, but as the illness that it is.
Get Involved and Break Down Stigmas
We’ve got to be involved with our people. We should be reminding people of their identity in Christ. We should be teaching our young people their value in Christ just as much as we worry about preaching abstinence. We’ve got to pay attention. If someone notices eating disordered behaviors, we can’t keep sweeping it under the rug because it’s uncomfortable. We defeat stigmas by talking about things and the church should be the one leading the way in tearing down stigmas associated with mental illness, not the one leading the way in reinforcing them. It’s time for the church to start doing something for these hurting people instead of continuing to push them away.