Health in Mind: Survivors of anorexia urge professionals to #DumpTheScales

Campaigner Hope Virgo is urging people to view eating disorders as more than just someone's weight. Pic from Hope Virgo
Campaigner Hope Virgo is urging people to view eating disorders as more than just someone's weight. Pic from Hope Virgo
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IT is thought that 1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder.

Although these illnesses affect physical wellbeing they are actually mental health conditions, and like most mental health conditions they will stay with a person for the rest of their lives – even if their bodies recover.

Polly Hale was turned away because she was not technically underweight. Pic from Polly Hale

Polly Hale was turned away because she was not technically underweight. Pic from Polly Hale

Research shows that the earlier an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating, is identified, the more likely it is the person will recover.

Rebecca Willgress from Beat, an eating disorder charity, said: ‘The sooner someone gets treatment for an eating disorder, the better their chances of a rapid recovery.

‘Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and despite stereotypes they affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Some common signs include becoming obsessive about food or body shape and weight, as well as behaviour changes, excessive exercise and tiredness.’

The NHS is able to offer support and recovery services if someone with an eating disorder is referred by their GP.

(Left to Right) Pictured last year are Liam Smith with daughter Poppy Smith, Sophie Smith with son George Smith with Caroline Skeet. Picture by:  Malcolm Wells (180824-0963)

(Left to Right) Pictured last year are Liam Smith with daughter Poppy Smith, Sophie Smith with son George Smith with Caroline Skeet. Picture by: Malcolm Wells (180824-0963)

But there are concerns about the way in which these disorders are identified for treatment among those who have experienced them.

Most GPs will only refer someone for eating disorder support if their body mass index (BMI) is below what is considered healthy – 18.5. This can cause an issue for those who are affected by an illness but are not in that ‘underweight’ bracket.

This was the case for campaigner Hope Virgo. The 28-year-old has been lobbying the government and NHS for change after she was refused the treatment she needed when she knew her anorexia was resurfacing. Her online petition has so far been signed more than 70,000 times.

Hope, who lives in London, launched her #DumpTheScales movement last year in the hope of doing away with BMI and weight guidelines when people seek professional help.

Sophie Smith Picture by:  Malcolm Wells (180824-1325)

Sophie Smith Picture by: Malcolm Wells (180824-1325)

Speaking to The News Hope said: ‘When people are turned away like that they feel like they have to prove a point and things escalate quite quickly. Some of them end their lives or end up further damaging their bodies.’

Hope first experienced symptoms of anorexia when she was 13. ‘I didn’t realise anything was wrong for a long time and neither did my family,’ she said.

‘With anorexia before anyone starts to lose any weight you pick up habits that are so hard to break.

‘Things would get heated around meal times so I would avoid being there. In that mental state I would do anything I could to avoid meals. It’s amazing how you can hide it for quite a long time.

‘My family didn’t realise for about four years until I went to my doctor about it.’

Hope was then given treatment for four months before she spent 10 months in hospital.

But when she felt her old habits returning nine years later it was a different story. She said: ‘I relapsed in 2016 and for four or five months I really struggled. I went to my doctor to try to get support. I was looking for just an hour of therapy a week, I knew that would have made such a difference.

‘But because I wasn’t underweight there wasn’t any support out there for me. After that I spent a lot of time crying and hating everything. I could’ve easily ended up in a bad way.’

Luckily for Hope, her family were there for her. ‘My mum is very supportive, she helped me cope,’ she said.

‘She came up with action we could take and how I could cope. I went on medication and got a personal trainer. But a lot of people don’t have access to that or whose parents are that understanding. People can fall through the gaps.’

Now Hope is healthy and she uses her experiences to educate others, giving talks at schools and hospitals across the country, and raising awareness of her cause and the illness.

She admitted that sometimes the signs can be hard to spot. 'You don’t have to be stick thin to be experiencing an eating disorder,' she said.

‘I was frustrated when I realised because when I was first unwell I didn’t see that there was anything wrong – I was in denial.

‘And the not eating, the excessive exercise and the calorie counting was giving me a sense of purpose. Although those thoughts might not completely go away you can learn how to live with them.’

You can learn more about Hope’s campaign and sign her petition by searching for #DumpTheScales on change.org.

Anyone worried about their own or someone else’s health can also find information on the Beat website, beateatingdisorders.org.uk, or contact their free helpline 365 days a year.

A HAVANT mum who saw her daughter’s life dramatically change due to her eating disorder has backed the #DumpTheScales campaign.

Caroline Skeet’s daughter Sophie Smith developed anorexia as a teenager. It got to a stage where they feared Sophie may never be able to have children of her own.

‘Weight first became an issue when Sophie was about nine or 10,’ Caroline said.

‘But up until the age of 12 she was still a very good eater and enjoyed her food. It was really when puberty started. She reduced what she was eating and she was also a good runner so she lost a lot of weight easily.’

Sophie, now 24, was referred for treatment but would gain weight to satisfy the doctors and lose it again after being discharged.

Since completing her treatment she has now had two children, Poppy and George, with husband Liam.

Caroline, 52, said: ‘I remember thinking once that when she was admitted to hospital that she might never become a parent. But now she has two children and they are amazing.’

She also backed Hope’s work. ‘Treatment for adults is completely different,’ she said.

‘They can say they are not thin enough. It’s absolutely terrible. It’s shocking. BMI can only tell you so much.

‘Eating disorders are such an awful thing to have. A lot of people with eating disorders don’t get the treatment they need and a third will die.’

POLLY HALE was originally turned away for treatment because she was not technically underweight.

The 35-year-old said: ‘I was 18 when mum took me to get help but I was not technically underweight so I continued to lose weight rapidly until finally I was admitted to hospital.

'I only became stable at about 23 after several hospital stays.’

The Bosham resident now works as a personal trainer and uses ‘exercise to enjoy life rather than to stay skinny.’

Polly said the lack of help caused her to lose more weight. ‘When I first saw someone about it I wasn’t considered underweight so I was referred to a counsellor for weekly sessions,’ she said.

‘I kept losing weight  a kilo a week – and a few months later I was diagnosed and given more intensive treatment.

‘I first remember thinking I was fat when I was about eight or nine. I first made myself sick at 12.

‘I am stable now. It’s quite rare that people become completely recovered. I stay well by managing it. It’s more like asthma or diabetes in that when it’s managed I am happy and healthy.’

Polly backed Hope’s movement. She added: ‘Eating disorders are such complex illnesses, so anything that can be done is good.

‘I fully think that what Hope is doing is brilliant.

‘When you’re anorexic the ill part of your brain wants to be thin. Never comment on someone’s weight. If you tell me I look like I’ve lost weight then I will think that’s a great thing even if it’s unhealthy. And if someone says I’ve put on weight – which could be a good thing – I will want to lose it again.’

Alcoholics Anonymous: 0845 769 7555

Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774

Beat (eating disorders): 0808 801 0677 (adults) or 0808 801 0711 (for under-18s)

Calm (for men aged 15-35): 0800 58 58 58

Cruse Bereavement Care: 0844 477 9400

Mind: 0300 123 3393

Narcotics Anonymous: 0300 999 1212

OCD UK: 0845 120 3778

Rethink Mental Illness: 0300 5000 927

Samaritans: 116 123

Sane: 0300 304 7000