Part of what makes eating disorders so deadly is that people still view them as ‘physical’ rather than ‘mental’ disorders.
Healthcare services, be it private or NHS based are reluctant to get involved, if not entirely refuse to offer treatment unless there is a notable change in someone’s physical appearance i.e. weight loss and/or other visible deteriorations of an eating disorder.
This is an extremely dangerous attitude for 2 reasons:
Firstly, it takes a lot of courage for someone struggling with an eating disorder to reach out and ask for help. It is something they will not do unless they truly need it as there is still a lot of stigma and shame attached to it. It is estimated that there are over 1.6 million eating disorder cases in the UK at any given time. However, these are only the recorded cases; the ones who were deemed ‘sick enough’ to merit help. There are undoubtedly millions more undiagnosed individuals who are battling with their illness alone. To refuse someone treatment is sending them a message saying ‘you are not worthy of help’. This therefore leads to an ocean of people who are forced to ‘suffer in silence’ until they lose control of their disorder and their health completely declines.
Secondly, physical changes are not ‘symptoms’ of an eating disorder; they are in fact the final stage. They’re your body’s last ditch attempt at crying out for help before it shuts down, letting you and those around you know that this individual is in serious danger of irreparable damage or even death. Think of your body as a plane with engine failure. Initially you may get a small warning light on the dashboard letting you (the pilot) know you’re running low on fuel which, if you address, you can nip the issue in the bud. If you ignore the signs, however, then the problem will progress and before you know it you will find yourself plummeting towards the ground at colossal speeds with slim chance of survival. This is why leaving intervention until the final stage of an eating disorder is leaving it until it’s almost too late to make a difference.
The tragic reality is, anorexia and other eating disorders are primarily diagnosed through a physical examination. Doctors will have you undergo a weigh in, calculate your BMI and most likely take some blood for testing. In my case, my GP only referred to treatment after showing signs of heart, lung, liver, kidney and brain failure. I was at least 2 stone underweight and was clearly battling a deep depression. I was even told that, carrying on the way I was, I would be dead within a month. Now given that, on average, it takes 27 weeks (that’s over 6 months) for eating disorder treatment to start after the 1st visit to a GP, you would think early diagnoses and referral would be a priority?! If I hadn’t slipped through the cracks of the system and locked down treatment as fast as I did, then surely by my GP’s diagnosis, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
Unfortunately it is not just those with eating disorders that aren’t getting the help they need; just last week Kent Online posted an article about a student from my local university committing suicide after his therapist refused to refer him to hospital despite having admitted to buying a rope and previously trying to take his own life. In a statement, his therapist said this young man ‘did not meet the criteria of being at imminent risk or declining’, and how ‘he was accepting and engaging with (us) them’. As I mentioned before, it takes an enormous amount of courage to openly discuss that level of vulnerability, especially at 20 years old like this young lad was and yet his honesty was thrown back in his face. I experienced a very similar scene in early 2017. I had an assessment with local mental health institution ‘Laurel House’ in Canterbury and, despite walking in with fresh scars on my arms, informing them that I was rapidly losing weight and that I was certain I was going to end up attempting suicide soon if I did not receive some support, they still justified telling me that I was ‘not a high risk case’ and that I was ‘not underweight enough to receive treatment from an eating disorder clinic’.
I understand the system is stretched but his is not a case of ‘we’ve sold out of concert tickets’ or ‘the sale ended at midnight’…when you refuse someone treatment then you are gambling with their life and I can’t speak for anyone else but I think that’s simply unacceptable!
The NHS’ “criteria” for a person to obtain help/treatment…is someone who is already dead or damn near to it. A lyric from The Band Perry’s, ‘If I Die Young’ comes to mind here. It reads “funny when you’re dead, how people start listening”. Why is it that heartfelt gestures and other messages of support usually only occur after someone has been suffering for so long that they end up taking their own life? I think it’s because the seriousness of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, is still underestimated and misunderstood. Heck I’ve had many conversations with people who, when asked whether they believed eating disorders to be mental illnesses or physical ones, said they considered them to be the latter. Perhaps this is why eating disorders have the highest mortality rates amongst any psychiatric disorders; because they’re being treated backwards; like eating hot soup for a broken leg and putting a plaster on cancer.
We seriously need to readdress our UK mental health services. In a bold statement; they are stretched, not because we do not have enough resources, but because we do not use our resources in the right way. Obviously we are underfunded compared to other areas of the NHS but we have been for years on end and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon (despite empty promises from the government). We cannot sit idly buy in the hope that changes will be made or that funding will increase. Around 20% of those with a diagnosed eating disorder will die from their illness. We’re not talking about 100 lives. We’re not talking about 1000 lives. We’re not even talking about 50,000 lives……….We’re talking approximately 250,000 lives lost with a large percentage of that being down to a simple misuse of treatment and resources!
As I have said many times before; it doesn’t take all that you have to make a difference, it’s what you do with what you have that counts.
COURAGE --- OnlyAliceMitchell xxx
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