Eating Disorders in the Military

On Remembrance Day, while we remember and honour our fallen soldiers and the sacrifices they made on behalf of all of us, it is also important to reflect on the critical impact mental health continues to play on the well-being of our brave and dedicated soldiers.

A Stats Canada report completed in 2013 revealed about 1 in 6 full-time Regular Force members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) reported symptoms of at least one of the following disorders: major depressive episode, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol abuse or depression, with depression being the most common disorder with 8.0% of Regular Force members reporting symptoms with a 12-month period.1

Eating Disorders remain one of the most stigmatized of all mental health issues and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the military. The strict regimen, rigorous physical training and restrictive dieting to maintain a targeted weight all increase the risk of developing an Eating Disorder. The impact of Eating Disorders on men in the military is often overlooked as Eating Disorders are viewed as a “women’s disease”. The shame associated with having an Eating Disorder stands in the way of an individual seeking help.

Additionally, soldiers might be exposed to trauma, separation from family, and stressful living conditions. Combat and threatening situations coupled with the rigidity and imposed controls of military training can foster harmful coping mechanisms resulting in unhealthy eating behaviors.

Eating Disorders affect personnel in all branches of the military. Statistics from the U.S. military starkly illustrate this point.  According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “A survey of 3,000 women in the military found that over 60% of respondents had an Eating Disorder, with 97.5% meeting the criteria in the Marine Corps alone,”. Other studies have shown that approximately 30% of women in the military suffer from an Eating Disorder.2

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Piekarcyzk-Vacca, a veteran from the CAF who shed light on his experience in the military and the mental health issues he encountered.

Richard was from a military family, joining the military at the age of 18. He was part of the Regular Forces, initially posted to the Canadian Forces Base in Gagetown, to embark on what he believed to be, at the time, a life of service in the CAF.

One day while serving at 4 Engineer Support Regiment, Richard was the victim of a hit-and-run while crossing the street. He sustained a head injury and was in a coma for 10 days, in Thunder Bay.

Due to his injuries, Richard was medically released from the military in 2016 after serving eight years. His interest in physical and psychological health lead him back to school to become a Registered Psychotherapist treating veterans and individuals who suffer from myriad illnesses including PTSD, depression, anxiety and Eating Disorders.

“Eating Disorders may flourish in a military environment for several reasons. In regards specifically to combat arms, from which I came from, objectification and dissatisfaction with the male body image may be most prevalent,” says Richard. “Many men are confronted with the desire for a nearly impossible physique to achieve let alone maintain. Often, demands placed upon soldiers may also make it easier to engage in problematic eating habits, such as restricted eating patterns or other caloric restrictive behaviours, like fasting, despite intense physical exertion. Moreover, we must understand Eating Disorders as a condition that may not necessarily occur in isolation but instead co-occur with another diagnosis, such as PTSD.”

Richard observed that the assistance provided for soldiers self-identifying with mental health issues is more likely to be disrupted when either the soldier or therapist is moved to another base – exacerbating the soldier’s anxiety and stress.

“Notwithstanding gross limitations, both the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada have made improvements regarding the biopsychosocial health of serving and released members,” says Richard.  “However, attempts to address stigma continue to require sincere dialogue at all levels of command. Among these, Eating Disorders remain one of the most stigmatized and potentially lethal mental health disorders. If we expect our soldiers to remain subject to unlimited liability, there is a requirement to properly develop appropriate screening and interventions to maintain demands placed upon them during service and support after release.”

Eating Disorders within the military are far more common than we think, yet the lack of understanding and discussion around mental health prevents many individuals from coming forward to seek treatment.  A better understanding of the risk factors associated with Eating Disorder symptoms and diagnoses in the military may help foster appropriate prevention and treatment approaches to decrease additional risk of injury and death in service members.

It is critical that we continue to work to break down the barriers of silence that shroud mental health so that everyone who struggles can seek the help they need to survive. In terms of the role mental health plays in the Canadian military, Canada’s former Minister of National Defence may have said it best:

“Our Canadian Armed Forces personnel and Veterans have put the safety and well-being of others before their own in many circumstances. Sometimes, the stigma associated with mental health is a barrier to seeking help. The Department of National Defence, the CAF, and Veterans Affairs Canada are working hard to break down this barrier by encouraging open and honest discussions around mental illness.”

—Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence 2015 – 2021

1 Stats Canada
2 Eating Disorders in the Military, Center for Discovery Blog Post