JOPLIN, MO.--- Research shows nearly 24 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Local experts say it's a good time for people to get educated. They say it's important to know the facts because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
"When you talk about an eating disorder, it's a broad category," said Del Camp, Ozark Center, Freeman Health System.
Eating disorders come in several different forms.
"Anorexia, bulimia, and of course binge eating disorder, and eating disorder N.O.S," said Camp.
Whether the disorder is marked by starvation, bingeing and purging, or eating excessively, there's a common theme.
"Generally, the symptoms are, there's either something about the volume of food you eat, or your fear around eating, or perhaps what you do after you eat that seems to be causing some problems," said Camp.
Doctors say ignoring the symptoms could result in more than just physical illness. They say anorexia claims the lives of nearly 20% of its victims.
"Eating disorders are the most deadly form of mental illness, and it's probably the least known of the mental illnesses from a risk perspective," said Camp.
It doesn't stop there. Statistics released by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders show almost 50% of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression.
"Just a number of consequences that can happen. Some of them emotional, some of them spiritual, some of them physical, but all three of them together are very physically devastating," said Camp.
Experts say many people don't seek help because they feel ashamed or don't want to look weak, but getting treatment could mean the difference between life and death.
"If you identify it as an issue, and you try to take steps to deal with it and find that those steps are ineffective, then generally you want to try to seek care," said Camp.
Doctors say if you're suffering from an eating disorder, you should seek care from a trusted medical professional immediately. They say the sooner you are treated, the more likely you are to live a normal lifestyle later.