New documentary about men with eating disorders highlights ‘misconceptions’

Dublin hurler Cormac Ryan says he was ‘tormented’ by this mental health illness

Cormac Ryan is one of three young men who lay themselves bare in talking about their eating disorders in Unbroken, a new documentary on RTÉ One.

"People think if you're 6ft 2in, 90kg and play GAA, you definitely don't have an eating disorder," says former Dublin minor hurler Cormac Ryan, who has been "tormented" by this mental health illness.

At times he felt “completely broken” and struggled to find a way out, the 28-year-old reveals in a new TV documentary, Unspoken, to be screened on RTÉ One on Thursday night. He is one of three young men who lay themselves bare in talking about their eating disorders, all of them having experienced suicidal thoughts at their lowest times.

Suffering from a condition that is most readily associated in the public mind with teenage girls compounded the sense of shame felt by all three. When Ryan was searching for information online, he says there was “nothing there about lads”, which reinforced his sense of isolation.

"The misconception that it doesn't occur in men can unfortunately lead to it not being recognised," says Dr Michelle Clifford, clinical lead for the HSE National Clinical Programme for Eating Disorders.


A 2019 Harvard study found that one in seven men will experience an eating disorder before the age of 40, while that rate for women is one in five. Over the past year, Bodywhys: The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland has seen a 105 per cent increase in men seeking help through its services.

For Eoin Kernan (38), his eating disorder started with a "health kick" in his mid-30s, after feeling he had become a "bit of a slob". He decided to improve himself, "do what everybody else is doing out there, clean eating".

Eoin Kernan

Every time the numbers dropped on the weighing scales, he got “a little hit of dopamine”, with the feeling of satisfaction that he was “finally making something happen – and that became obsessional”. He looks back at photos of himself then and describes himself as looking like death – “like a skeleton ready to just pass away”.

The most harrowing moments in the documentary, directed by Alan Bradley and produced by Chris Vaughan for Alleycats Films, is a video clip of Mr Kernan in 2019 after he had had to go to a hospital emergency department.

“I’m empty, exhausted, broken,” he whispers, face on to camera. He had told his story “to 13 or 14 different f**king people and I’ve no help. Ireland, this is what you’re doing to people with mental health problems.”


Lobbying TDs about the need for more treatment services for people with eating disorders became something of a crusade after recovery for 25-year-old Daniel O’Boyle, a law graduate from Co Mayo. He had to borrow money from his mother for private therapy after being told he was not thin enough to access public treatment.

Daniel O’Boyle

Dr Kielty Oberlin, an eating disorder specialist, is incredulous that people could have an eating disorder, but deemed "not small enough to get help. You would think we would know better at this point."

People are coming out of medical training, she suggests, with far too little knowledge of eating disorders. When the relationship with food has broken down, “that’s just the symptom that the person has lost their sense of worth, if they ever had a core sense of self and sense of esteem”.

Mr O’Boyle says he wanted to lose weight from about the age of eight, when he started to think he was fat. But his mother, Sharon O’Boyle, is in no doubt that the sudden death of her husband after a heart attack was the catalyst for her son’s eating disorder in his early 20s. The household was thrown into “utter turmoil and Daniel doesn’t do turmoil”, she explains, he prefers organisation. The eating disorder “gave him the control he needed”.

He was avoiding eating and exercising a lot, running even when injured. There was “no excuse for not running”, says Mr O’Boyle. It got to the point where “I wanted to kill myself, I didn’t want to be here”. On waking up in the morning, there was “no happiness, no light in the day”.

It was mid-recovery when, Mr O’Boyle reckons, that he could see “losing weight out of self-hatred is unsustainable”. Now he goes running out of a love for his body and the way it has carried him through.

Ryan also had to go private for treatment and the documentary shows him walking in the door of the Lois Bridges treatment centre in north Dublin for the first time. It's after completing a programme there that he can say "for the first time in many, many years, I actually like who I am again".

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