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A look back at "Eating Disorders: Support for the Frontline"

Over the two days of our Frontline conference, we’ve been delighted to hear from people with a wealth of experience in eating disorders – those who have suffered themselves, those who have cared for a loved one, and those professionals who work on the frontline each day to support people affected by these serious mental illnesses.

Running through the conference has been the understanding that carers both paid and unpaid need support themselves, both to aid their own wellbeing and to enable them to give the best possible care to people with eating disorders. Andrew Radford, Beat Chief Executive, kicked off the conference by noting the ways in which Beat has changed over the last two years, including, in recent months, the introduction of a new strategy for family empowerment. He highlighted this as being key to ending the pain and suffering of eating disorders, along with better knowledge and early intervention. In a session on the second day of the conference, he shared Beat’s new research, which showed among its findings the serious impact that delaying treatment can have not just on sufferers but on the whole family.

Two Beat Ambassadors, Rhiannon and Megan, spoke powerfully about their personal experiences of eating disorders, sharing their stories but also advice for carers about what they had found helpful and unhelpful during their illness and recovery. They recognised that families go through eating disorders together, but, as Megan said: “Knowing that my family has worked together has made all the difference.”

Sam Clark-Stone, a mental health nurse with over 30 years of experience of working with people with eating disorders, spoke about the importance of carers looking after their own wellbeing as well as that of the person who is suffering. You can read about some of the advice he gave here. Dr. Jenny Grunwald, a counselling psychologist at the children and young people’s community eating disorder service at Springfield Hospital, spoke next, discussing the impact of eating disorders on siblings, often overlooked when it comes to the damage eating disorders can do to sufferers and those around them. One sibling Jenny had interviewed saw the stark change in her sister when she became ill, saying: “It doesn’t seem like that’s my sister, because that’s not the person I’ve known growing up.” There must be more recognition of the frustration and helplessness siblings feel.

Jenny also noted that siblings can help promote recovery, offering a different perspective, often noticing things that others don’t and saying things that others can’t. She advised that even younger siblings may understand more than people realise, and that they should be invited to ask questions and involved where they can be.

Laura Lock, lead occupational therapist at the Vincent Square eating disorder service, talked about a group-based therapy to help people with meal preparation and eating out. Dr. Lizzie McNaught, who has experienced an eating disorder, and her father Nick, reflected on their experiences and talked about what made the difference to them. Closing out the first day, Dr. Vicki Mountford, principal clinical psychologist as the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, talked about new perspectives on treatment and recovery. She discussed how recovery can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about being fully free of all symptoms; for others, it may be about managing symptoms and increasing quality of life.

On day two, after Andrew Radford’s opening talk on Beat’s new research into the impact of delayed treatment, Natalie Maley and Gill Williams, respectively the deputy clinical manager and parent practitioner at Newbridge House, talked about work with families. This again addressed the importance of involving the family in the treatment process. Much of the conference has recognised the necessity of this involvement and support, as people whose loved one is diagnosed with an eating disorder are heading into unknown territory. Illustrating this, but also offering a message of hope, was a panel of three parents, Cristina Brown, Lynda Kent, and Nick Pollard, whose children have all experienced and recovered from eating disorders. They shared their stories, thoughts about what they wished they’d known sooner, and ideas about what helped them to care for their children. You can read more about the panel here.

Beverley Murphy, Director of Nursing at the West London Mental Health Trust, gave a talk on “splitting”, which describes the extreme “black and white” thinking that many people with eating disorders can experience. This can lead to them saying things they don’t mean, but which can be deeply hurtful. Beverley encouraged carers to take a step back, get communication right and keep messages clear when this happens.

In the afternoon, Nina Grant, a clinical psychologist at South London and Maudsley, and Michaela Flynn, a researcher at the Section for Eating Disorders at King’s College London, discussed early intervention techniques for parents and clinicians. They stressed that eating disorders do not get better by themselves, that early intervention is the best tool for minimising the devastating long-term impacts of eating disorders, and that it offers the best chance of a full and sustained recovery.

Some of Beat’s Ambassadors offered further ways to support someone with an eating disorder, before a final talk by Beat’s Director of Services, Caroline Price, on the support that Beat can offer to both those with eating disorders and those caring for them. We hope that this year’s Frontline conference is the first of many, and we welcome feedback on what went well and what you’d like to see next year.