Eating disorder awareness is a hard one, forgive me for rolling my eyes out loud, but so often we’re all hit with the same generic and repetitive statistics, the same ‘signs and symptoms to watch out for’ and the same media articles hailing stories of sufferers. You know the ones – emblazoned with the shock factor ‘before and after’ skeletal pictures that actually only ironically serve to be massively triggering and upsetting to sufferers and epitomise the one thing we are trying to prevent or treat.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for awareness. I’ve been a chronic sufferer of anorexia for over half my life now and believe me, it’s no picnic. I would go to the ends of my six inch sub to save just one other person from treading the same path. I guess that’s why I get so fired up about the subject. What we should ACTUALLY be making people aware of is not just these basic facts, which let’s face it, most of us now are pretty aware of. Eating disorders are often splashed across celebrity magazines and social media these days, ever increasing in number and with new variations such as current trends for ‘clean eating’ and the like.
What about being aware of the rest of the story though?
The fact that even if you get as far as a visit to the GP, it has to be one of the only illnesses where you will most likely be told to go away and get sicker before you qualify for treatment. So forgive my cynicism about a post-haste visit to a professional when the truth is, despite early intervention being so very critical – if your weight isn’t low enough, you aren’t likely to get the help you so sorely need. Not at the fault of your GP but because, sadly, that is the diagnostic criteria that currently exists. Typically, an anorexic goes away and loses more weight and gets dangerously ill.
What about the other eating disorders, bulimia for example? Equally as life threatening and yet often doesn’t exhibit itself in dramatic weight loss. Ergo, harder still to get treatment for.
That’s before we even factor in the delays in referral times, assessment times, waiting lists for community treatment, inpatient treatment… need I go on? All the while, the illness becomes more severe, behaviours more entrenched and thus harder to treat than they would otherwise have been at onset.
Treatment – there’s another issue. A big one. Mental illness is often in the media as being desperately underfunded and as an offshoot of this, eating disorders are even more so. There simply aren’t the resources to provide the type of care sufferers need. Again, only the very thinnest seem to qualify for inpatient beds and find themselves in a system that falls short in terms of providing ongoing and follow up care within the community. The type of care that is crucial to a sustained recovery. I am blessed to have a fantastic GP and a care coordinator who have undoubtedly saved me many times over, when I’ve fallen through the gaps. Most aren’t so lucky and the specialist services are far from ideal. I’m definitely not criticising them directly – they largely just need more funding.
So if you’re new to all this – be aware it’s an uphill battle.
You’ve made it into treatment. Are you aware that this is no quick or guaranteed fix? Even as a sufferer, I thought it would be. I thought I would go to that specialist unit and come out all fixed and well and ready to pick up my life again. Wrong. Eating disorders are a severe (often enduring) mental illness and there needs to be awareness that you need to prepare for the long haul; a battle with your own mind, that may take many attempts, take years and affect every part of your life and those around you.
It’s paramount there is a willingness to engage with recovery and to work hard to achieve health. It’s not a passive process, there is no pill or plaster cast and no two people respond in the same way.
Please do watch out for signs and symptoms and please do still seek help. It’s all very well raising awareness and getting more people to seek help but you have to ask yourself where does that leaves us in a system that is already struggling. Isn’t the real issue here, what the Dickens do we do about it?! I don’t have the answer to that one. All I do know is that people suffer and struggle and are unwell for unnecessarily long periods of time. People do die.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses and I’d like to see that change.
If you’re worried about your mental health or that of someone you know, you can get advice and support from the Plymouth Eating Disorders Service. Ring them on 01752 228027 or email firstname.lastname@example.org