It's not just rich skinny American girls who battle with eating disorders. What you should know about the Irish and eating disorders. iStock

When we think of the Irish, we don't necessarily think of eating disorders. In the popular imagination, eating disorders are the domain of only skinny, rich American girls. But we would be wrong!

Rosalyn Sheehy, a Dubliner, has written about her own recovery from bulimia in a new genre she calls Comic Book Therapy (CBT). "Loopy Loo: A Story of Beating Bulimia" is an illustrated poem about how Sheehy developed bulimia after her father’s death when she was a teen. Now a law graduate and a passionate advocate for eating disorder sufferers, she says, “I wrote this book to lessen the shame of eating disorders. Since we Irish are renowned for our sense of humor, I put a little humor in bulimia's tumor and wrote the book in a cartoon format.”

As far back as 2006, The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland declared an estimated 200,000 Irish people were affected by bulimia, anorexia or compulsive overeating with 400 new cases each year, representing 80 deaths annually.  

Following the publication of this report, an ever increasing number of people in Ireland has been diagnosed with eating disorders. The current prevalence is about 85% female, the majority aged 15-24, although more women, and even men, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s now suffering from eating disorders.

Fortunately, there has also been a growing awareness of the need for treatment there are more options than ever before. In recognition of International Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Ireland will sponsor its second Irish National Eating Disorder conference in February.

In discussing her recovery, Ms. Sheehy said, “I can say that St. Patrick’s Hospital In-Patient Eating Disorder Program in Dublin kick-started my recovery, but it was my finally owning up to how destructive bulimia had become for my body and my life that was the hardest part. Bulimia is a terribly lonely and insidious disease, a horribly destructive cycle of bingeing and vomiting, and it is rampant in secondary schools and boarding schools throughout Ireland. All eating disorders of bingeing, purging, or starving may begin as an occasional episode, but for the emotionally vulnerable, at crucial milestones like puberty or starting University, they become a deadly dangerous secret that ruins lives for years and steals health and beauty. The more acute patients I met at St. Patrick’s Hospital also suffered traumas like sexual abuse, bullying, and bereavement. For me, bulimia was my way of burying the pain of my Dad’s death. Bulimia was the devil I knew. It was helping me avoid my grief but was slowly destroying me from the inside.

Read the latest health news from Ireland on IrishCentral

“As a once-oppressed race, I think the Irish have an innate insecurity and willingness to please. We Irish are well known for our literary prowess, but on a personal level, it is safe to say, we are sometimes not the best communicators. We have a tendency to sweep what bothers us under the carpet. “Everything is grand!” (When everything is NOT grand!) “I am fine!”  (When I am NOT fine!) This eagerness to act as if nothing is wrong comes with a price, and eating disorders can go undetected for a decade.

“I also think the cold, dark, damp winters have a lot to answer for. There is a prevalence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Ireland. Amongst teenage boys there is a rising rate of suicide while teenage girls here tend more to get eating disorders.

“Ireland, as a country on the edge of Europe, is as cosmopolitan as any, and we are not exempt from preoccupations with weight and body image. There is a constant tug of war to be thin while Irish mothers and grandmothers show love, comfort, and nurturing with mashed potatoes, brown bread, and homemade jam!

“I hope eating disorders become less of a secret so girls, women, and, yes, boys and men, can get the help they need!”

As Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders, I originated the term “emotional eating” in 1982 to describe how troublesome inner feelings – not hunger – can trigger someone to binge, purge, or starve. Emotional eating is about being hungry from the heart, not from the stomach. People with emotional struggles find it easier to blame their "fat" (real or imagined) as the cause of their life's unhappiness rather than face whatever stress, anxiety, depression, grief, anger, or sexual conflict is underlying their food and weight preoccupation. Eating disorders are a way to comfort ourselves in the midst of emotional pain. And it's easy to turn to food to cope. After all, food is the most legal, cheapest, socially approved, mood altering drug on the market!

Read more: Three wonderful little Irish brothers face a dreadful fate – can anyone help?

The three most widespread eating disorders are:

- Binge Eating Disorder: a person overeats excess food even though they are not physically hungry.

- Bulimia: a person binges and then makes him/herself get rid of the food through throwing up, laxatives, diuretics, or excess exercise.

- Anorexia: a person refuses to eat, willfully starving herself, even to the point of death. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.

For many people, trusting food is safer than trusting people. For many people, loving food is safer than loving people. After all, food never leaves you, never abandons you, never dies, never mistreats you. You get to say when, where, and how much. No other relationship complies with your needs so absolutely. So people detour their hungers from the heart through their relationship with food.

Each person's journey to solve their eating disorder is unique as a fingerprint. For the eating disorder sufferer: keep reaching out until you find the treatment or therapist that is knowledgeable and supportive of your individual recovery needs. Healing an emotional eating problem is about reclaiming the vitality of your inner self that has been hidden by your consuming relationship with food.

Eating disorder recovery is about self-compassion, hope, health, healing, and wholeness or as Ms. Sheehy’s Loopy Loo would say:

Loo learned a lesson in life that became her heart’s song

Sharing your suffering makes you infinitely more strong

This is the first step on the way to recover

Live, love, laugh, a truly happy life you’ll discover.

True healing begins when we learn to sink our teeth into LIFE, not into excess food!

Eating Disorder Resources

- Bodywhys.ie – resources throughout Ireland for eating disorder sufferers and their families

- Eatingdisordercentrecork.ie

- Eating Disorder Resource Catalogue – books, articles

- EDReferral.com – free newsletter, book reviews, research

- LoisBridges.ie – residential and day patient care for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating

- MentalHealthIreland.ie

- National Centre for Eating Disorders

- Overeaters Anonymous – 12 step program

- RecoveryWarriors.com – podcasts, recovery articles

**  RecoveryWarriors.com

- Rosalyn Sheehy – advocate and author of "Loopy Loo" at [email protected]

- St. Patrick’s University Hospital Eating Disorders Service

- St. John of God offers inpatient and outpatient treatment for psychiatric conditions and eating disorders in Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny

- St. Vincent’s Hospital offers inpatient eating disorder treatment in Dublin

* Mary Anne Cohen is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders and author of French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating and Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating. You can visit Mary Anne at www.EmotionalEating.Org.