Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions. On the surface they may seem to be about food and weight, but dig deeper and you’ll see there’s a lot more going on. As someone who’s experienced an eating disorder, I can tell you it’s rarely just about food.
For me it was about a need for control and a way of coping with emotions I didn’t know what to do with. It was a focus I found to make things feel… better. Even though, of course, it made me feel anything but.
These conditions can affect your physical health and the way you look. But you cannot tell who has an eating disorder by looking at them. Due to the insidious nature of these conditions, someone with an eating disorder is also unlikely to reach out for help themselves. This is why noticing early signs is imperative.
With doctors so often at the frontline, it is essential that they’re trained to spot these early signs and help those in need. Currently GPs receive, on average, under two hours of training on eating disorders, despite them affecting one in 50 people in the UK. A fifth of UK medical schools don’t provide any training on eating disorders at all.
This is why Beat are calling for more robust training in medical schools. This campaign is the focus of this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week. To learn more, I spoke to Kerri Fleming, Head of Specialist Services at Beat, and Counselling Directory member Dr Gregory Warwick, Chartered Counselling Psychologist at Quest Psychology Services.
The first thing made clear to me is, like other mental health conditions, eating disorders are complex. Greg explains that the diagnostic criteria can often overlap and each individual’s experience then also adds a layer of nuance.
Discussing some of the myths surrounding eating disorders, Kerri notes that it’s difficult to pick out only a couple as there are so many out there.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there, some of the more common ones are, for example, that someone with an eating disorder is always underweight. Sadly this is a stereotype that often prevents people from realising they have an eating disorder or feel like they are worthy or deserving of help for an eating disorder and it can mean they don’t reach out for help.”
Kerri notes that this misconception can also prevent loved ones from noticing there’s a problem, all making early intervention more difficult.
“Eating disorders can happen to anyone of any weight, any age, any gender.” Kerri reiterates.
Another myth Kerri mentions is that anorexia is thought to be the most common eating disorder. While this is the condition most often talked about and represented in the media, binge eating disorder actually affects more people than anorexia and bulimia combined.
“That’s why Beat’s campaign for last year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week was about binge eating disorder and we’ve seen a big increase in this in the last 12 months.”
Kerri continues to highlight the importance of reaching out to professionals if there’s anything you’re unsure of when it comes to eating disorders, including those who have lived experience.
Moving on to the topic of this year’s campaign, Kerri explains that it’s focusing on more robust medical training around eating disorders.
“We’re campaigning for every medical school foundation program to provide comprehensive eating disorder training as part of their degree. Our aim is to help ensure that every future GP is able to understand eating disorders, see the signs much quicker and point people to the most relevant treatment.
“Recovery is possible, but we do rely quite heavily on our GPs to spot these early warning signs that may have nothing to do with weight or appearance.”
Beat recently carried out a survey of people who have experienced an eating disorder and 58% of respondents felt their GP didn’t understand their eating disorder, and 72% had to wait over six months to get help from their GP.
Kerri points out that GPs are very dedicated to supporting these people, but they have to have the right tools in order to help and this is where Beat’s campaign steps in. To support the campaign, Beat is asking us to speak up, skill up and step up.
Speak up: Share your experiences with GPs (positive or negative) on social media and get the conversation going.
Skill up: Join Beat’s campaign for change online and show why this training can be life-changing.
Step-up: Fundraise for Beat and amplify their message.
If you are getting involved, you can use the hashtags #WorthMoreThanTwoHours and #EDAW2022 on social media.
Discussing the importance of early intervention Greg explains that along with the physical risk eating disorders pose, getting help early is necessary to change habits.
“We are ultimately trying to change eating habits and how we look after ourselves, and the longer that goes on, the more it embeds itself.”
Telling us more about getting the right support, Greg reminds us of the importance of checking our sources. There are lots of people out there giving advice, especially on social media platforms like TikTok that may not be accurate. Using sources like the NHS and charities that work with eating disorders is key.
Looking into the different avenues for support, Greg mentions that NHS and charity support can be ideal, with private therapy being an option for those who can access it. Greg notes the barriers to private therapy, including the fact that those who are very underweight or are engaging in risky behaviours may benefit more from having a team around them.
For those who are well enough to work with a private therapist, Greg says to check they are trained in this area as not all counsellors have eating disorders training.
Looking at the different types of therapies that can help, Greg mentions:
And, of course, these approaches will depend on the individual and their specific needs.
“Regardless of the model, 40% of change comes from your relationship with your therapist.” Greg says. So ensuring you trust and get on with your therapist is key.
There are lots of factors you may want to consider with this in mind, some examples given by Greg and Kerri included the gender of your therapist, their religion, whether or not they are in the LGBTQ+ community and whether or not they are neurodivergent. The important thing is to feel a sense of connection.
Thank you to Beat for joining us for this discussion. As a reminder, you can learn more about their campaign and join in over on their website.
If you are looking for a private therapist to help with an eating disorder you can visit Counselling Directory.
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