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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

I am a Person in Recovery from Mental Illness, Trauma, and Obesity

10/19/15 03:43 PM | Gloria Dickerson | Recovery, Trauma

I am a Person in Recovery from Mental Illness, Trauma, and Obestity

More than two thirds of U.S. adults are considered to be overweight or obese (NIH). Nearly one in four suffer form mental illness each year, with one in 17 living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder (NAMI). The relationship between obesity and mental health is complex. Research shows higher rates of depression and anxiety in obese people (Katz, et al. 2000; Scott et al., 2008). Obesity may also trigger eating disorders, distorted body image, and low self-esteem. Similarly, obesity and being overweight are more prevalent among people with serious mental illness (Parks & Radke, 2008).

The quality of life and prognosis for people who experience mental illness and obesity are bleak. A 2006 study reported that public mental health sector patients died, on average, approximately 25 years earlier than non-mental health patients (Colton & Manderscheid, 2006). Additionally, if the rate of obesity is not interrupted, it will be the leading cause of preventable death (Parks & Radke, 2008).

Given the facts it is hard to imagine why I am still obese.

The lived experience of obesity, mental illness, and trauma brings more than a “stigmatizing identity.” Living with the consequences of assigned negative labels also brings resilience and purpose. I am a person in recovery from mental illness, trauma, and obesity. Trauma has been in my life since early childhood. The label mental illness was added as at age 15. Obesity has been a part of my life since my thirties.

My adult onset of obesity arrived after my label of mental illness. Obesity in my life is the result of multiple traumas and the accompanying uncharted feelings and hurts that threaten to overwhelm my capacity to cope. My original fall into an obesity lifestyle began with severe depression and the use of a well-known antidepressant. I gained over 120 pounds in a year and a half. Food was comfort. Eating was a bright spot in my dismal day.

Every attempt to get hold of my haphazard eating has failed. Each inspired attempt seems to fizzle out in the day-to-day struggle to muddle through my life. Depressed out of my mind, I resigned myself to eating as a way to deal with hopelessness. Eating what I want made life seem a little more normal and bearable.

I went to the source of “help and care”—a prominent medical center —to lose weight. I was repeatedly surprised that medical staff reacted to my fat as if I had created a crime. Medical professionals can use the term “obese” to vent disgust in harsh and scolding terms. In emergency healthcare settings, my size and my weight left me a target for contempt. Yet the vehemence in their words and tone did not inspire corrective change but rather left me separated from the possibility of being helped, spiritually demoralized, and deeper in despair. The label of obesity as a source of stigma and discrimination reigns unchecked and unrestrained. I was asked, Why didn’t I want to do the bariatric surgery? I relayed that I had trouble feeling that I would be well taken care of in the climate of disdain I find in healthcare settings.

My weight problem is about my relationship with myself. To solve feelings of victimization and hurt that come with rediscovering past traumas, I often have to place my weight problem on “the back burner.” Food replaced connection with others and often replaced medication. I ate to soothe myself. I avoided being with people more and more, and with the growing isolation food calmed the chaos and my fear. Eating feels like safety.

However, my “safety-net” is a double-edged sword—a lifestyle that ensures obesity and premature death. At age 64 and still living smack in the land of fat and morbid obesity, I have learned to commit to life no matter what form my body takes. In a society that hates fat, this is quite a feat! And, after 25 years of trauma recovery work I know what events almost broke my heart and temporarily my spirit.

Discovering the worst has given me a fighting chance at reconnecting with a viable self, self-love, and the mental energy to recover from being obese. Finding out and standing strong in the face of the awful truths of past trauma in the end is freeing.

I am proud and grateful to be alive. I am in multilayered growth processes like everyone else. My hope for recovery from obesity is grounded in respect for my resilience. It remains true that encounters with other people who will judge me harshly can add or detract momentarily from my happiness. I am steadied by the fact that I have overcome a lot. I now keep the negative judgments in perspective. If I am judged harshly I know that it is because others don’t know the whole story.

My life is richer than obesity!


Jane Collingwood (2013). Obesity and Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved Aug 10, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/obesity-and-mental-health/000895

Colton CW, Manderscheid RW. Congruencies in increased mortality rates, years of potential life lost, and causes of death among public mental health clients in eight states. Prev Chronic Dis [serial online] 2006 Apr [date cited]. Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2006/apr/05_0180.htm.

Parks, J., & Radke, A.Q. (2008) Obesity Reduction and Prevention Strategies for Individuals with Severe Mental Illness. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD).

Mental Health America (MHA) Congressional Briefing, Obesity and Mental Health Hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) Wednesday, October 3, 12:00 - 1:00pm

Katz, D. A. et al. Impact of obesity on health-related quality of life in patients with chronic illness. Journal of General Internal Medicine, Vol. 15, November 2000, pp. 789-96.

Scott, K. M., Bruffaerts, R., Simon, G. E., Alonso, J., Angermeyer, M., de Girolamo, G., ... & Von Korff, M. (2008). Obesity and mental disorders in the general population: results from the world mental health surveys. International journal of obesity, 32(1), 192-200.

Image by hjl (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Gloria Dickerson

Written by Gloria Dickerson

Gloria Dickerson is a Recovery Specialist at the Center for Social Innovation. Her expertise in recovery derives from academic training and lived experience of recovery from trauma, mental illness, and homelessness. Gloria received a B.S. from Tufts University and has completed master’s level studies in Instructional Design and Psychiatric Rehabilitation.