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Myth Two: Fat is Mental Illness

April 25th, 2011     by Shaunta Grimes     Comments

Dr. Pattie Thomas wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth checking out.

The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So: welcome to a 10-week series.

The second myth in her book is Fat is Mental Illness.

I’ve thought about this topic, this myth, and for some reason I struggled with it. It made me uncomfortable. And I finally realized the reason is because I was afraid I wouldn’t have the skill to write it in a way that didn’t sound like this:

We may be fat, but at least we aren’t mentally ill.

And that isn’t where I want to go. While it is a myth that being fat is a mental illness, that doesn’t mean that having a mental disability is somehow “worse” than being fat (or vice versa.) Or that you can’t be fat and have a mental disability at the same time.

Just like bodies come in all different dimensions, brains come in all different varieties as well. I believe that it takes a wide variety of people, in body and mind, to make the world go ‘round.

As a mental health professional and the mother of a child who has a pretty traumatic history with the mental health industry, I truly believe that it is often those who don’t fit in the neurotypical mold who have the biggest impact on the world.

Those of us who are neurotypical, perhaps, have to work harder to get our minds out neutral so that we can see things in different way. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an American agency, describes mental illness as a group of medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.

There are mental disabilities that correlate with weight gain or being fat. Some eating disorders, for instance. Body dysmorphic disorder. Depression sometimes leads to overeating for comfort and lethargy that makes exercise intolerable, both of which can (but don’t always) cause weight gain. While many drugs cause weight loss when they’re abused, alcohol abuse or dependence often causes weight gain. In addition, many drugs used to treat mental illness result in sometimes spectacular weight gain.

When my son was nine, he had been misdiagnosed with ADHD for three years and treated with a stimulant and anti-depressant. After it became clear he didn’t have ADHD, he was re-misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and given a handful of pills to take every day. Nick went from 60 to 180 pounds in three months. His weight tripled. Not only that, but because he was finally eating, his body took advantage of the calories (I guess) and started growing. He grew almost six inches and three shoe sizes. In three months. That is what the medication for bipolar disorder can do to your body.

A recent study showed that among 800 Americans with mental disabilities, two-thirds were overweight or obese (as defined by the body mass index).

This article is so startlingly misguided that it’s hard to organize the reasons why. It glosses over the fact that the patients studied have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, both of which are treated with medications that can cause weight gain. And totally skips that the correlation between bipolar disorder and alcoholism, which also can cause weight gain, and is so strong that many professionals believe that patients who present with alcoholism should be screened for bipolar disorder.

No. This article blames mental health professionals for influencing their patients with their own bad behaviour.

Is being fat a mental illness all by itself though?

Food clearly affects your mood. I think nearly everyone has eaten out of emotion rather than hunger at least occasionally. Lack of exercise can result in both weight gain and depression. Being fat causes such severe stigmatization, isolation and often public humiliation, that many people who are fat benefit from mental health treatment.

Yeah, it’s no wonder that some people think that being fat is a mental disability. If we only had the capacity to understand that we’re killing ourselves with our deathfat. If we only were able to take the advice to eat less and move more. If only we didn’t hate ourselves so much, which must be a mental illness. And you know, those fat kids who eat donuts for breakfast every morning have a harder time concentrating at school. That’s a mental illness, right? Right??< / end sarcasm >

Or is this is another case of correlation is not causation?

Looking again at NAMI’s definition of mental illness, it is impossible to fit fat in there without some other underlying condition. Being fat does not automatically cause differences in thinking, feeling, mood or ability to relate to others. Sometimes the reality of being fat causes other problems that lead to these differences, and sometimes these differences are caused by another condition that also lead to being fat or to treatment that causes fat.

As Dr. Thomas says in her book, benefiting from mental health treatment is not the same as a mental illness. It isn’t, any more than benefiting from exercise is a sign of heart disease.

Shaunta Grimes blogs about body acceptance and athleticism at every size at Live Once, Juicy.

Tags: body politics

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