It’s day three of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018 and I want to continue my series of posts on eating disorders in groups that don’t get much media attention. We started with eating disorders in boys and men and yesterday looked at eating disorders in athletes. Today, I want to talk about disordered eating among medical professionals.
In 2007, while I was interviewing individuals for my book, I spoke to two individuals, “Robert” and “Karen”, who were involved in the medical field. Both were EMTs and Karen was about to start medical school. Both spoke of their work as fulfilling, but intense, in which “life and death decisions” are made daily. The job exposed them to what is now called “secondary trauma” and contributed to seeking control in other aspects of life, namely through dieting. (Both note that they had experienced disordered eating before joining the medical profession, but felt the most out-of-control during the years spent in that profession.)
In recent years there has been an increase in research about secondary trauma, that is the physical and emotional impact of working with people who are traumatically injured or terminally ill. Those who go into this work often say, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” And the healthiest of medical professionals has a well-established self-care routine that involves physical, emotional, social, and spiritual activities. But for many doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, the hours are long, the breaks are few, and the intensity is great. Medical professionals experience secondary trauma, immense stress, and tend toward perfectionism. Their need to maintain professional standing amongst peers contributes to difficulty seeking help. Clearly, they are at high risk for developing and struggling to recover from eating disorders.
So, to me, the work is clear: we need to normalize eating disorders in this population and destigmatize help-seeking. In my graduate program for Clinical-Counseling Psychology, there was a general consensus that mental health providers would do well to see their own mental health providers. I think the same holds true for medical professionals; all can benefit from processing the trauma and stress that is experienced at work. I hope medical schools are beginning to emphasize self-care as part of their curriculum. If not, let’s start advocating for such changes at universities and encouraging the medical professionals we know to seek the help they so deserve.