Shift the narrative around eating disorders for Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2019: share stories, not sickness


You don’t need to be skeletal to have an eating disorder

February 25th -March 3rd 2019 is Eating Disorders Awareness Week here in the UK. Around 1.25 million people in the UK are suffering from an eating disorder at any one time (Beat, 2017) and many, many more will have disordered eating or being in stages of partial recovery from their mental illness.

While anorexia and bulimia are most commonly diagnosed in girls and young women, eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders and races and are not always visible. Most people who struggle with an eating disorder will not become underweight and many successfully hide their problem from the people around them.

Having struggled with an eating disorder for twelve years now, I know how important Eating Disorders Awareness Week is in breaking down the misconceptions around eating disorders, and to encourage and signpost people towards treatment and help. I am particularly in favour of this year’s theme ‘Why Wait?’ which pertains to the long and lengthy wait eating disorders patients face before they access treatment.

It normally takes around three years after the emergence of symptoms before sufferers seek help, and then they are placed on extensive waiting lists in order to begin treatment, or in many cases, they are refused treatment at all. I was in this boat, it took me a very long time to accept that I wasn’t fully recovered from my teenage anorexia, and when I finally got referred to an eating disorders service, it took fourteen months for my appointment to come through. During which time my symptoms and my physical health worsened. Beat are trying to change this with their campaign to impose standard waiting times for adults with eating disorders, which mimic those found in CAMHS.

However, despite its potential, the one part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week that I am not looking forward to is the emergence of anorexia memoirs which detail people’s lowest weights, their skinniest photos, their diet plans and their exercise regimes. Journalists often ask sufferers for this stuff because they think it sells papers and they rely on ‘shock factor’ tactics to try and explain something that most people don’t understand. It doesn’t aid understanding at all: it just perpetuates stereotypes that everyone who has an eating disorder is skeletal.

At worst it is dangerous and triggering to current sufferers who may choose to mimic the behaviours they read about.

There is also a huge issue of representation here: the majority of stories you will read during EDAW will be from young white women who suffered from anorexia. We won’t hear many stories of people who struggled with bulimia or binge eating disorder, or OSFED. We won’t hear from many men with eating disorders, and we are very unlikely to hear from older people, or people from BAME communities, or the LGBTQI+ community, or disabled people who also struggle.

Sharing stories is so important: I enjoy reading stories of people in recovery or recovered from their eating disorders, it inspires me. Recovery is so damn difficult everyday, it’s full of ups and downs and the eating disorder voice can be completely relentless at times. It’s important to me to know that other people have been through it and come out the other side. For the general public, or those supporting somebody with an eating disorder it’s important to hear these stories to understand more about how to help and to reduce the stigma and shame around eating disorders.

But let’s do it responsibly.

If you or somebody you know is struggling with their relationship with food visit Beat at for information and support.

For support and information about mental health visit Mind at

If you need immediate help in a mental health crisis please call the Samaritans on 116 123 (freephone)

Don’t make social media the enemy: the other issues behind the rise in self-harm

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The Children’s Society recently released a report which stated that 22% of teenage girls aged 14 have self- harmed within the past 12 months and 9% of boys have. That makes almost a quarter of teen girls, and a total of 110,000 young people across the UK who have self-harmed in the past year.

It’s very sobering to read. Unfortunately, it did not come as a surprise to me. Having worked with young people for the past six years or so, and spent time in schools I was acutely aware that self-harm was fast becoming one of the biggest problems facing young women. In fact, in 2015, The Girls Attitudes Survey, run by Girlguiding found that 75% of young women aged 11-21 listed self-harm as being a major issue facing their peers. It would appear that we didn’t do enough to address self-harm back then, and we still aren’t doing enough now.

But what is behind the increase? The conclusion most people jump to is that social media is to blame and is driving kids to despair, with concerns over body-image and cyberbullying becoming unbearable. But this is overly simplistic. Yes, there are definitely reasons to be concerned about the impact of social media on our young people, primarily because it hasn’t been around long enough for us to know what the long-term impact might be on mental health, but it is just one part of a much bigger picture that I fear we are missing.

What the Children’s Society report shows is that one of the highest risk factors for self-harm in teens is being attracted to the same or both genders, meaning that LGBT+ teens are at a much higher risk of self-harm that heterosexual children. Again, this is something that is sadly unsurprising to me. One of the most common issues I hear about from kids when I go into schools is homophobic bullying. We saw the horrendous impact that homophobic bullying can have this week when nine year old Jamel Myles took his own life after being bullied for coming out as gay in the fourth grade. Being an LGBT+ teen can be difficult anyway, even without the added stressor of bullying; not knowing who to tell, questioning your own sexuality, being afraid of judgement from friends, family and colleagues and feeling isolated from your peers are all issues these young people have to contend with.

The other risk factor for self-harm was coming from a low-income family. Austerity often bites families the hardest: cuts on youth centres, school meals, and welfare benefits all interrupt the daily functioning of a family, causing anxiety for both parents and children alike. A low-income family may also be more likely to live in a socially-deprived community, with higher crime rates and more likely to experience racism and other forms of discrimination. A child growing up in that kind of environment would unsurprisingly be more susceptible to poor mental health.  The Children’s Society doesn’t delve into this issue in great depth, but again, it highlights that something more than just pressure from social media is at work here.

What was very clear, was girls were more likely to report self-harming than boys were. Many of them mentioned that pressure around how they looked caused a lot of anxiety, and the frequency of hearing comments about other people’s bodies and sexuality affected how satisfied they felt with their own appearance. As with all reports and statistics, we know that there are certain limitations: we can’t be sure for example, that there is such a large difference in rates of self-harm between girls and boys, or if girls are just more willing to report self-harm than boys are. But the one thing we can be clear of is that The Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society does make it clear that we need to think beyond just social media when it comes to children’s mental health and start addressing some of these wider concerns.

Read the full report here: The Good Childhood Report

4 reasons to take a Youth Mental Health First Aid Course

Did you know that 75% of mental health issues start before a person is 18? Or that three children in every classroom suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition? Young people are experiencing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions and with Child and Adolescent Mental Health services having their budget slashed left, right and centre, there has never been a greater need for more awareness and training in this area.

Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses are for everyone who works with, lives with or supports young people aged 8-18. They will teach you the skills and confidence to spot the signs of mental health issues in a young person, offer first aid and guide them towards the support they need.

Here’s 4 reasons why you should consider getting trained up:

  1. You can help a child recover from a mental illness

Mental Health First Aid is not about training you up to be a therapist. It’s about giving you the skills and awareness you need to spot signs of a mental health problem developing in a young person, intervene and signpost them towards professional help. In doing so, you can speed up a young person’s recovery and stop things from getting worse.

2. It’s very topical

The course materials feature topics such as cyberbullying, social media and body-image which are top of the list of young people’s concerns. In fact, in the first week of 2018 the Children’s Commissioner published a report ‘Life In Likes’ about the impact of social media on young people which showed how the digital world is changing the lives of children.

3.You get a qualification out of it!

Completing the two-day Youth Mental Health First Aid course qualifies you as a Youth Mental Health First Aider and you get a certificate to prove this. It also counts as CPD points for many professions.

4. Top-notch instructors

Both Pamela and Rachel have lived experience of mental illness in their teens. Pamela has worked with many young people who are in crisis, including those in the prison system, and young people who have chronic mental health problems. Rachel has worked with MHFA England for four years now and goes into schools to deliver talks on mental health, alongside sharing her experience with new MHFA Instructors who are still in training. She appears in the YMHFA Course materials.

In their last course, 100% of delegates rated both instructors as Excellent.


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