Eating disorders do not occur in a vacuum. Nobody suddenly wakes up one day having ‘contracted’ anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Although eating problems thrive on secrecy and can lead to painful isolation, they aren’t without context either. They can impact on all areas of life – from the ability to participate at school, university or work, through to the relationships we have with our family, friends and wider society.
When I developed anorexia, I was lucky enough to already be in child and adolescent mental health services. Lucky – you’d think – because I was in the ideal place for the signs of my emerging eating problems to be spotted right at their onset. Identifying those at risk of developing eating disorders and providing appropriate support right from the first signs of struggling can help prevent much worse problems further down the line. Early intervention can prevent years of misery, save huge amounts of money in the costs of care, and ultimately, save lives.
Sadly, this wasn’t my experience. Instead of the people around me being able to spot the signs of my developing eating disorder, they just couldn’t understand what was happening to me. My school had next to no knowledge of mental health in general and I had to educate them. My family and friends just weren’t aware of what to do to help. Worst of all, my GP couldn’t understand why I “wanted to look skinny – that’s what girls want”. The mental health team responsible for my care only addressed the eating disorder that was flourishing before their eyes when I was at such a low weight that hospital was the only option.
Hopefully things have changed. I believe that awareness of eating disorders as real and dangerous problems has improved since I developed the eating problems I still live with 14 years later. I hope that nobody else has to get to the stage of nearly losing their life and living with an entrenched and severe eating disorder to get help. But in order for this to happen, it is imperative that eating problems are taken seriously right from their first signs. This means being aware of what those first signs are – from a fixation on weight, shape, food and exercise to disappearing to the toilet after meals and avoiding eating in front of others.
And who should be aware of these signs? We all should. It isn’t the job only of specialist services to identify eating problems and provide diagnoses. The power to prevent eating disorders is in all of our hands, from the school teacher to the friend, the parent to the GP. Raising awareness of the signs of eating disorders will help us all to have them on the radar, so that when they do appear to be developing in any one of us, swift and appropriate responses can be provided. This way we have the hope of supporting the person – rather than their eating problem – to flourish.