Mental illness can cause weight gain, but it’s hardly what we should focus on

Apr 4, 2016 at 2:00 p.m. ET
Image: Max Andersen/Getty Images

The Internet gleefully skewered actor Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break and The Flash fame) last week for his weight gain, making memes about how he went from hunk to chunk and joking about his eating habits.

But the actor finally had enough and stood up to his critics, releasing a powerful statement about the images, the humiliating memes and his weight. The reason for his extra pounds? Mental illness. The star went through a deep bout of depression, even becoming suicidal. Like so many of us, he turned to food for comfort.

More: Wentworth miller on surviving the painful body shaming that almost killed him

"I was looking everywhere for relief/comfort/distraction. And I turned to food. It could have been anything. Drugs. Alcohol. Sex. But eating became the one thing I could look forward to. Count on to get me through. There were stretches when the highlight of my week was a favorite meal and a new episode of TOP CHEF. Sometimes that was enough. Had to be. And I put on weight. Big f—king deal," he wrote on Facebook.

So instead of poking fun at his body, he added, we should be celebrating he's still here and made it through all of that.

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The thing is, Miller is definitely not alone in his struggles. Weight gain, weight loss and weight fluctuations are quite common with mental illness. One person who totally gets this is Jeni Svestka, a Minnesota mom of three, who's dealt with panic disorder for years.

Although she experienced anxiety and depression at different points in her life, last year it reached its apex. A serious family fight sparked a surge of anxiety — that just wouldn't stop.

"I was having panic attacks multiple times a day," she says. "I felt like I couldn't leave my house. The thought of going into public places scared the s*** out of me because I was sure that a suicide bomber would kill us all."

More: 7 ways to stop your panic attack ASAP

Soon the panic had infiltrated every aspect of her life, making it hard for her to care for her children and do her job as a fitness instructor. Even though she tried to hide it, she says it became apparent something was seriously wrong. "I went to the emergency room at least 10 times last year certain I was having a heart attack or an aneurysm or something catastrophic because that's how I felt," she explains. "The anxiety was so high I never got a break. I stopped being able to sleep."

Eventually, she says, she started having suicidal thoughts, and a good friend convinced her to seek psychiatric help. Her doctor immediately diagnosed her with panic disorder and put her on medication to help ease her anxiety. The meds worked, but Svestka had mixed feelings about them. "Taking medication made me feel like a failure. It made me feel like I wasn't in control of my body," she says.

And it didn't help that she was gaining weight. Not only did her medications make her gain weight, but she was also putting on pounds from having to quit teaching classes at the gym and from turning to food for comfort. At first, as the scale climbed, so did her fear. She was a fitness instructor who'd worked so hard to stay fit and trim.

But then, one day, she says she just stopped caring about it. "I had no more mental energy to expend on anything like that," she says. "In fact, the thought of worrying about my weight in relation to what I was dealing with internally seemed incredibly stupid! So I gained 20 pounds."

Now that she's finally feeling much better and her anxiety is under control (she hasn't had a panic attack in more than six months), she says she's finally in a place where she can focus on losing the extra weight. But it's no longer because the scale or some arbitrary number still hold any power over her.

"Honestly, I don't care what I weigh," she says. "Mostly I just want to lose weight because I don't want my cholesterol or blood pressure to be high, and I want to be fit and strong and be able to outrun my husband. Life is about so much more than my weight."

These days, for both Miller and Svestka, it's simply about being healthy — mentally and physically. As it should be.