Figures acquired by the BBC this week have revealed the shockingly long waiting times patients are being lumped with in order to receive mental health treatment for eating disorders. Meanwhile, another fashion advert – this time by Gucci – has been banned by the ASA for featuring “unhealthily thin” models. The two stories reveal the vicious cycle of how eating disorders continue to be treated in society: as a taboo rather than a prevailing mental health concern. Here, journalist Molly Lynch tells of her battle with anorexia and why it’s high time the disease is seen as the serious mental health concern it is.
I WISH I were surprised. But the news that some people with eating disorders are waiting up to 180 days to see a specialist barely raised an eyebrow.
I have first-hand knowledge of how bad things are. I’m one of the thousands of people behind the statistics. I’d liken my experience with health services as a kind of paradoxical Pass the Parcel where I am the ‘prize’ no one wants.
Before the age of 22 I’d always been on the bigger, or curvy side.
Then I slimmed down to a size 12 from a size 16. Compliments rolled in. I felt validated in a way I never had before.
Each day I’d try and exercise more and eat less than the last. Soon, my periods stopped.
When I was down to a size 6/8, or 7st at my lowest, it became about maintenance. I could be this thin for ever.
I’d describe myself as a ‘functioning anorexic’. I was a serious, busy journalist.
And yet, behind the by-line was a lost person surviving on 800 calories a day and then burning more than that in the gym. It reached a dramatic climax last summer when I collapsed in the street while out running. Feeling my delicate bones smack off the cold, hard concrete pavement was a moment I will never forget. I didn’t want to get up because I knew I’d carry on destroying myself.
Admitting you have a problem is such a huge step, and convincing myself I was worthy of help when my self-esteem was virtually non-existent was difficult enough.
With my iron levels dangerously low, and a severe warning that I was drowning my brain by eating supermarket-sized bags of ice to curb my appetite, my GP got me an ‘urgent’ (it took three weeks) appointment with a specialist centre.
I poured my heart out to the consultant, confiding in her every secret of my self-destructive behaviour, my thoughts that I’d be better off dead.
Then a week later she called back. She’d discussed my case with a multi-disciplinary team and they’d decided my ‘BMI wasn’t quite low enough’ to access their treatment. To an anorexic person, that simply translates as ‘lose more weight’.
Facing a three-month wait for an appointment with the community mental health team, I moved back in with my parents, with a different NHS trust.
Six weeks later, I was back in a room telling another stranger my story. She told me the service ‘didn’t do eating disorders’. Oh, except a bulimic, once, she said. Great.
I don’t blame these services. I wasn’t a 14 year-old weighing 5st. The last thing I want is for someone in critical need to lose out. Of course, priority should be given to those at the most serious risk.
But surely, the NHS and other professionals know better than to tell anyone with an eating disorder they aren’t quite thin enough to get that urgent help, or specialist treatment?
After having to give up my job, and sleep on my teenage sister’s floor (NOT the Sleepover Club-esque scenario I’d envisaged) I finally began therapy with a local charity. I cannot begin to convey how much it means to see the same person every week, to trust someone and feel deserving of help.
Focusing the criteria so heavily on the physical such as BMI risks ignoring the underlying factors. I have bouts of horrendous depression, and crippling anxiety which often prevents me from leaving the house.
There is a common misconception that anorexia is Silly Teenage Girl Disease. Society is quick to blame glossy mags and high fashion for parading gaunt-looking girls like the one in the Gucci ad this week.
But body image is just one factor in what is a complex and hugely misunderstood mental illness.
Anorexia is not just a physical thing. It’s a disease of the mind. It can appear in any person, at any age, for any number of reasons.
Repairing the body is one thing. Repairing the mind is a whole different battle altogether - and it's high time the NHS and society as a whole started to take it seriously.