Eating Disorders: Mythbusting II

– Rose Liddell

Following on from Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it would be appropriate to write an article busting myths about eating disorders. Eating Disorders are probably one of the most controversial mental health difficulties in contemporary society, and as a result many people with eating disorders experience severe stigmatisation and misunderstanding. There are a lot of myths surrounding eating disorders, so this article is about dispelling these myths in the hope that eating disorders can be understood without prejudice and that those suffering from eating disorders are given the same empathy and support as we would expect to have for suffering from any physical illness.

Myth One: Eating Disorders are a lifestyle choice 

One of the most common myths about eating disorders is that eating disorders are similar to going on a diet, there is the misconception that eating disorders are purely about the goal of losing weight and therefore, it is easy for the person suffering from an eating disorder to stop or to decide to eat more to put on weight. Some even have the view that having an eating disorder is merely being vain or “attention seeking”, losing weight just to look “thin” or to attract attention to themselves.

Myth-bust: Eating Disorders are not necessarily about the goal of losing weight or trying to be thin. Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, have complex causes and so it’s really difficult to try and find one standard trigger or cause for why a person can develop an eating disorder. Furthermore, for many suffering from an eating disorder, it is such a burden that it is often incapacitating, some suffering from an eating disorder are incapable by themselves of putting on the weight that they need to to in order to survive, so in that instance, it can be incredibly hard to stop or eat more when the illness has such a hold on the person. Therefore, having an eating disorder is not something that a person chooses or wants, and it can be incredibly hard to just “deal with” and “get out of”. Furthermore, an eating disorder is not merely a “phase” or a “fad” that a person goes through, but a genuine mental health difficulty that should receive empathy and the offer of treatment as with any physical or mental illness.

Myth Two: Eating disorders are just about someone’s relationship with food

There is the misconception that an eating disorders is just about the relationship with food, and that the problem of binge eating or perhaps controlling the amount of food that you eat is purely to do with whatever feelings and attitudes a person has towards eating.

Myth-bust: Eating disorders are highly complex and difficult to understand. There are multiple causes and triggers, which means that someone experiencing an eating disorder is not just having nonstandard attitudes towards food. Some eating disorders can arise as a way of coping with a particular external situation that is affecting the person. The ability to control something such as food might be the only way in which a person affected can cope with whatever is happening around them. However, even if we can factor in what is happening in that person’s external situation, it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly what brings about an eating disorder.

Myth Three: If someone has an eating disorder, then we should blame the family

Some take the view that someone suffering from an eating disorder has the eating disorder because of their family. They may argue that families cause the person to suffer from an eating disorder and therefore it is the family’s fault why someone suffers from an eating disorder in the first place.

Myth-Bust: The idea that it is the family’s fault why someone is suffering from an eating disorder is a historical idea that actually is a complete myth and has no factual basis. Eating disorders are genuine mental health difficulties and as a result cannot be in the control of the person suffering or indeed the family.

Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, can place a heavy emotional burden not just on the sufferer but also on their loved ones, and families can often feel powerless watching their loved one suffer as their physical and mental well-being deteriorates whilst being helpless to do anything to stop it. On the other hand, families can actually be key into helping that person recover, and there is lots that they can do to help.

Myth Four: Eating disorders only affect young girls and women

Myth Bust: Whilst statistically, more females appear to suffer from eating disorders than men, at the same time these same statistics clearly show that there are a large number of men who get eating disorders too. Mental health difficulties can affect anyone. They make no discrimination as far as age, race or gender is concerned, so to assume that an eating disorder can only affect females is a fundamental mistake. It may be that statistically more females suffer from eating disorders (why this is we might not understand quite yet), but perhaps part of the reason why statistically women appear to suffer from eating disorders more so than men is that there is much less awareness of men suffering from eating disorders. Perhaps men are less likely to come forward and reveal they have an eating disorder. As a society, we expect eating disorders to affect women more than men, perhaps because of media pressures for women to pay attention to their appearances, and in particular to be “thin”, it surprises us when we find that men suffer from eating disorders too. But as discussed previously, eating disorders are not brought primarily due to media pressures or influences to be thin but are a combination of highly complex factors. Most importantly, eating disorders often have a genuine biological basis, which makes onset independent of external environmental factors. What is worth noting is that both for men and women, eating disorders are on the increase. Both men and women with eating disorders should be treated equally with the same degree of empathy and support.

Myth Five: It is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder

There is a view that it is easy to identify someone suffering from an eating disorder, due to the fact that there are drastic changes in their weight and appearance to an extent that they don’t look “normal”.

Myth Bust: Someone does not have to have drastic physical changes in order to have an eating disorder. Those who are bulimic, for example, have a relatively “normal” weight, so someone suffering from an eating disorder cannot necessarily be identified by their size and weight alone. Someone who looks “thin” may not necessarily be suffering from an eating disorder, but someone who looks overweight may be suffering from a compulsive overeating disorder. Therefore, the view that it is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder is mistaken.

Eating disorders can be highly challenging to a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s important to recognise all aspects of what someone with an eating disorder is going through, rather than just focussing on the physical effects, the effects you might be able to see. Eating disorders should be taken very seriously, as should any other mental health difficulties.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for a person to recover, given the right support and treatment. By becoming aware of eating disorders and their complex nature, we can help to reduce the stigma surrounding eating disorders and create a better understanding of how eating disorders work. That way, we’ll be able to give more effective help and support to those who are suffering.

Check out Student Minds’ resources on understanding eating disorders and how to a friend or close one with an eating disorder: www.studentminds.org.uk/understanding-eating-disorders.html

B-eat is an eating disorders charity in the UK with information and resources on eating disorders: www.b-eat.co.uk 

Information about eating disorders and common myths can also be found on the National Institute of Mental Health’s website at http://www.nimh.nih.gov.

There is also information and advice for support on the Alliance for Eating Disorders website which can be found at the address: http://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com.

For children and young people suffering from eating disorders, Childline also offers help and support as well as information about eating disorders for young people. 

For men with eating disorders, check out Men Get Eating Disorders Too: http://mengetedstoo.co.uk/

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Dear My Previous Self…

Dear my previous self – getting personal

– Ruth Beacon

The post you are about to read is a little different from the rest. This is a letter that I wish I would of read at the beginning of my recovery. It is written to my former self, not knowing where or what was happening. These are things that I now know and have learnt.

This is for all those in recovery- inpatient, outpatient, discharged from adult eating disorder specialist, those freshly diagnosed with an eating disorder; at university or home.

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Dear my previous self,

You may feel completely lost, confused and lifeless. That is the reality of an eating disorder. It isn’t a glamorous illness. I know you are cold (from the bone), constantly hungry, and lonely.

I want you to know that the pain you cannot describe does fade. The bigger your life gets, the smaller anorexia becomes.

There are a few things that I want to tell you, remember:

  • Recovery is worth it: Every tear, mouthful and psychology session is going to be worth it. Once you experience life again you will realise that there is more to life than anorexia. Having the freedom to think beyond rituals and rules feels liberating, living a ‘normal’ life seems in reach.
  • You are amazing just the way you are: Think about all those people that love you; send you encouraging texts, messages and cards. They love you for your personality and all your quirky bits. Inner beauty shines out.
  • Scared? Nervous? Fearful? That is ok: These feelings are natural and are to be expected. Change is scary! Change means facing your fears, talking about feelings that you want to hide and gaining weight. Recovery is worth it! as who wants to fear food?
  • Listen to medical professionals and those around you: Medical professionals have had years and years of training, they know what they are talking about. LISTEN and TRUST them. You are not the first anorexic they have seen and the medical professionals have watched people recover and live their lives. Family and friends only want to see you get the help you need, so take on board their advice. Ultimately, it is up to you.
  • You can live without anorexia: Anorexia holds you back, lies, manipulates you, stops you living your life and it dominates completely. You probably think you cannot live without it, but you can, there are coping mechanisms that really really help. It’s power over you diminishes and you become more in control of the eating disorder (and not the other way around).
  • You are not alone: I know you feel alone and the only person there has ever been to suffer with an eating disorder. However, there are lots and lots of people who suffer with eating disorders,  you are not isolated in this (side note: I have made lots of new friends from being an inpatient and there is a bond because we have all been through the same thing and kept each other strong).
  • This experience is not wasted: You may not believe this now but you will be grateful for all you have been through. It has made you realise what is important in life and you can empathise with people who are going through similar situations. You may be the one giving advice in the future!
  • Hope: There is a light at the end of the tunnel, life becomes brighter again. You realise there is hope. People teach you this and you realise this for yourself. Hope is what drives you to keep going. It is a beautiful feeling.
  • You are strong: Only one person has got you through this and that is YOU. You are the one who has worked so incredibly hard, you deserve happiness and you are STRONG.

Love, Ruth x

This blog was written for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can find other inspirational stories of recovery on the Student Minds website, as well as information about where to get support if you are experiencing an eating disorder at university.

How volunteering can help you

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– Grace Anderson

Graduating from university fills many students with dread. The prospect of being outside the university bubble and having to “grow up” and get a “real job” in the “real world” is a daunting experience for many. This is why getting the experience before you leave could help you out in the long run.

Yes, I understand you may have a lot of work on at university, but this could reduce your future stress! Personally, I know that you can get a degree whilst volunteering at the same time, providing you don’t put too much on yourself. Trust me – it’s possible (remember how many hours there are in a day!).

Going out and doing something outside of university may be just what you need, giving you the chance to forget about all your academic worries and focus instead on something else. Do you want to put a spring in your step? This can happen through volunteering. Simply by giving up a few hours of your time, you can help others and make a difference, and you’ll feel happier as a result.

Research conducted by Citizens Advice Bureau indicated that volunteering boosts self-esteem, employability and health, especially mental health. So not only does volunteering benefit the people you help, but it can, most importantly, help you! It can provide you with the ability to cope and come to terms with your own illness, take your mind off your own problems, meet new people, and develop a sense of purpose.

I can guarantee (even if you don’t personally believe it) that you have a skillset that you can provide to services and causes near your university. It might be excellent communication, team work, or having a passion for working with children or people with special needs. You could be an asset to a company or organisation, and all you have to do is offer your services to them. Not only do they gain your help but you also grow and develop as a person and learn more skills to better equip you for life after university.

Do something today and make a difference not only to your personal health but to your community – and your future.

Student Volunteering Week is an annual campaign with the aim to raise awareness of the value of student volunteering, celebrate the impact of existing work in the community and inspire more students to get involved and make a difference in society.

If you’ve been inspired by this post to consider volunteering for Student Minds, check out our Get Involved page to find out all the ways you can join the work we do, whether that’s online or offline, on campus or elsewhere!

Anorexia is just about wanting to be skinny…right? Myth Busting

– Ruth Beacon

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a time to make people aware of the seriousness of Eating Disorders (ED’s) and to give a voice to those who are suffering. To give perspective, this time last year I made the decision to admit myself into an inpatient ward for anorexia. A year on, my life has completely changed (for the better). I am back at university (I nearly gave it up so to go back is a mighty achievement), have a job and am a proud owner of my very own car!

Now that I have had personal experience of anorexia, I decided to combat some of the myths that people may believe or think about ED’s.

To clarify, the conditions under the umbrella of eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa
  2. Bulimia Nervosa
  3. Binge Eating Disorder
  4. Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ENDOS)

The majority of this post will be from an anorexia view point, but it is applicable to bulimia, binge eating disorder and ENDOS.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: Isn’t anorexia just about wanting to be skinny?

MYTH BUSTER: No… is binge eating disorder just about “eating a bit too much?” or is depression just about “being sad?”… the answers to all these questions is no.

Here’s why: An Eating Disorder is a complex mental illness. Anorexia along with bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS, is a result of many social, psychological and emotional factors in an individual’s life. It does not boil down to “just wanting to be skinny”.

Eating disorders can be:

  • a coping mechanism
  • a way of taking control
  • a way of making yourself feel more positive about your appearance
  • a distraction from everyday life or a negative life event

Anorexia can start off as a “simple diet” but quickly snowballs into a radical obsession with weight and shape. Bulimia and binge eating disorder centre around eating large amounts of food (thousands of calories worth) and with bulimia either: purging, taking laxatives or starving after, because the guilt is too strong. Someone who struggles with bulimia or binge eating disorder can be of a normal weight, and not all individuals with ED’s have lost large amounts of weight.

The feeling of taking control is something that is at the crux of eating disorders. By controlling, often limiting food, it gives the person a sense of control, especially if they feel like nothing is going right or everything is spiralling out of their control. Taking control in this way is coupled with intense thoughts and feelings around food.

Eating disorders are about anything but food, instead they are linked to social, emotional and psychological issues that are deeply ingrained within an individual.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: When you become weight restored (after being diagnosed asanorexic), you are better and fully recovered.

MYTH BUSTER: No, this is not the case. When you have treatment for anorexia, it is two fold:

  1. Physical recovery – this means getting the person’s weight and BMI back in the normal range (which is considered to be 18.5- 25). When a person reaches the correct weight for them, normal bodily functions begin (periods etc). Cognitively, the brain starts to work again and a person thinks more clearly, making it easier to have psychological treatment.
  2. Mental recovery – this is a much longer process and does not happen as quickly as people believe; mental recovery takes time, this could be years. If you think how long someone could have been stuck in their eating disorder ways for, think how long reversing those thoughts can take. It is complex and involves psychological treatment, support, hard work and determination.

If someone is diagnosed with an ED that means body weight is not necessarily affected e.g. binge eating disorder, the “mental recovery” phase is targeted. It various from person to person but psychological treatment for an eating disorder is the route that is taken.

The team involved in treatment of ED’s is multi disciplinary and includes: GP’s, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, healthcare assistants, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, medical consultants, physiotherapists and the invaluable help from family and friends.

The above myths take many forms but the answers remain the same. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and cannot explain answers to questions, maybe you could link this post to a friend or family member. If you are supporting a friend with an ED, I hope this sheds light on the complicating and confusing world of eating disorders.

People may look physically recovered but fighting the eating disorder thoughts is a difficult daily task. I see recovery as being able to live a normal life- working, studying, going out with friends, being independent and not letting an eating disorder dominate your every moment. Of course, the definition for recovery is different for everyone but being able to live a ‘normal’ life is something

In my personal experience and from watching others, as I now get on with my life, the person who is living with an ED has to want to get better and work with the team treating them. It is a tough journey, as are recovery from all illnesses, but the outcome is so worth it.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place 23rd February – 1st March. To find out more about eating disorders, check out our resources. If you’re looking to run awareness-raising events or campaigns during the week, you might be interested in holding a “Love Your Body” campaign, which aims to inspire body confidence in everyone. Campaign materials for Love Your Body can be found here.

Help! My friend is suffering with their mental health

UMHD Facebook logo

 – Hannah V

With University Mental Health Day coming up on Wednesday 18th February, Student Minds are trying to encourage everyone to open up to their friends about their mental health difficulties, and for their friends to support them in any way they can.

Mental health problems can be such a lonely place. Depression can cause people to withdraw from their normal social circles; anxiety can prevent others from leaving their rooms; and schizophrenia can make people paranoid about the relationships in their life. Although it can seem impossible when you are suffering with your mental health, sometimes the best thing you can do is open up to a close friend and let them support you.

It can be really heartbreaking to hear how much a friend is suffering. To hear them say that they have no enjoyment in life, or that they don’t want to be here anymore, can be a really difficult concept to deal with. People with mental health problems will need support from their friends and family, although they may not realise it themselves. These are my tips for supporting a loved one that is suffering with their mental health:

  • Be there for them. Be there for the person as much as possible and make time to ask them how they are doing. Let them know that they can contact you whenever they need to chat or vent their feelings. You can make someone feel so much better if they just know that someone is there for them whenever they need that extra help.
  • Show that you care. Sometimes just telling someone that is suffering with their mental health that you care doesn’t work due to all of their negative thoughts – you have to show them. Send them a random text telling them how much they mean to you, or even just asking them how they are. Arrange lots of things to do with them and give them something to look forward to. Just let them know that someone cares enough to spend time with them.
  • Never judge them. Remember that people with mental health difficulties aren’t always in a rational mind set, and they may say things that you don’t agree with. Try to be as non-judgemental as possible and listen to their worries, never telling them that they are being silly or should cheer up.
  • Reassurance. People suffering with their mental health often need a lot of reassurance. You may need to continuously let them know that you care, and that you will never leave them. They may need to know that they will never be on their own. Don’t get frustrated when you have to repeat yourself, as mental health difficulties can stop the sufferer believing what others are saying – but when it is repeated over and over it makes it less difficult to believe.
  • Patience. Mental health difficulties can take a long time to overcome, and there may be a few setbacks along the way. This can become really frustrating for the person and everyone around them, but always keep hope that they will get better, encouraging them throughout.
  • Know what not to say. Although you may feel like it, never say “you shouldn’t be feeling like this because you have everything going for you and you’re beautiful/intelligent/amazing/etc” – this will probably just make the sufferer feel guilty. Never tell them to “pull themselves together” or “cheer up” as this won’t help either. Don’t say that you know how they feel, as you most likely don’t – mental health is individual for everyone. Instead listen to what they are saying and respond with empathy; let them know that you are there for them, and maybe create a plan with them of how to make them feel better in the future.
  • Don’t blame yourself. This is probably one of the most important points. Never blame yourself for their suffering as it isn’t your fault. They may hurt you with what they say but don’t analyse their words much, as they don’t mean to upset you.

It can be really hard to have a friend that is suffering with their mental health. Sometimes they will just need a hug, other times they will need to have some alone time – you have to be flexible and adapt to their needs at a particular point. If you are worried about a friend and think they may be experiencing a mental health difficulty, there is lots of support out there: your university’s pastoral care is a good first point-of-call, or the charities Mind and Rethink have people you can contact at any time.

As Stephen Fry rightfully said about depression, which applies to all kinds of mental health difficulties, “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

At 4:30, Student Minds is hosting a #studentchats on opening up to a friend with mental health difficulties for University Mental Health Day. If you’d like to know more about how you can support a friend, check out our Look After Your Mate guide, which is full of useful tips and suggestions.

Reaching Out: Opening up to a friend at Uni

-Emmy Gilmour, The Recover Clinic

It’s probably fair to say we’ve all experienced stress on a variety of different levels from deciding what to wear, to panicking about deadlines.  While coming to university can be exciting and fun for some, for others it may be lonely, isolating and highly stressful.

You may feel like you’re juggling a lot: moving away from home, meeting new people, receiving that new timetable packed with an overload of information, having to look after yourself and of course finding time to fit in work with all that socialising. “The only way to make sense of change, is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

The first term at university can be overwhelming and chaotic and the chances are you haven’t experienced this level of stress and anxiety.  Many people start to feel that they are unable to cope.

Being in charge of choosing, buying and cooking your own food combined with this new found freedom and responsibility can easily result in developing eating disordered behaviours as a way of attempting to control the chaos.  What may start off a seemingly harmless coping strategy can soon develop into a full-blown eating disorder that takes control of your whole life.

You are not alone

Every university will have support services available to those who need it, if not a specialised eating disorders service then a counselling service that will be able to help. They may also have a free helpline that can give you guidance and advice.

If you can feel yourself slipping into unhealthy patterns or you notice a housemate or friend is presenting with eating disorder behaviours then please do make use of these services.  Please do get help, keeping it to yourself and dealing with it alone will only make it worse.

Reaching out

It takes an immense amount of courage to ask for help. It may be too scary, too overwhelming or we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or dependent on anyone. Remind yourself that reaching out for help can act as a life anchor and marks the first step of your journey to recovery

If the prospect of reaching out to professionals is too daunting for you, confiding in a friend can provide you with much needed support and encouragement as well.

Start by identifying at least 1 person that you can go to for support, whether it is your partner, friend, family member or mentor. Make sure you can trust this person and also ensure they are readily available to help you.

When you approach this person, make sure you communicate exactly what you need from them. This is very important, as they may know that they want to help you but are unsure how to go about this. Communicate that you are ready to seek support and cannot do this alone.

Be prepared for any reaction. Your friend or loved one may feel anything from compassion to helplessness to guilt. Bear in mind their first reaction is not indicative of how supportive they will be in the future.

Taking this initial step and sharing your struggles can be terrifying, but the rewards will amaze you. Just one leap of faith will give you a chance to live the life you deserve.  Reaching out is not a sign of weakness, but one of courage.

This University Mental Health Day, Student Minds is backing the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, which gives students the resources and guidance to make an informed decision about disclosing mental health difficulties to their universities. Since 3 out of 4 students say that friends had been supportive following disclosure, we’re encouraging students to open up to their friends, and giving friends tips on how to look after their mate. Join the all-day conversation about student mental health by following #unimentalhealthday or tweeting @StudentMindsOrg and @UMHANUK.

So, I want to tell my friends…

– Ruth Beacon

Uni Mental Health Day is upon us and this year Student Minds is focusing on opening up to friends about Mental Health issues. First off, I want to say a huge well done for making the choice to tell your friends that you have a mental health problem. The recent “Time to Talk” campaign aimed to tackle the awkwardness and stigma that surrounds conversations about mental health. It is somewhat reassuring that the difficulty and reluctancy in talking to friends/colleagues/family is not just suffered by you – everyone finds this difficult.

There is a way out, we must actively do something to change this and together as a network of people we can help each other talk more about mental health. University can be an incredibly lonely place, especially if you suffer with a mental health problem; anything could spark off feelings of anxiety, compulsiveness or sadness. This is why it vital that you tell someone you can trust, in order that they can keep you accountable and safe. So you may be thinking … “I am scared”, “what if people judge me?” or “how do I even tell my friends?!” . Well, here are a few tips on opening up…

  1. Write down your feelings: when you write how you feel it is easier to comprehend your thoughts and emotions. Writing them down enables you to think deeper into what and why you feel a certain way, perhaps you could then read this aloud to a friend.
  2. Rehearse what you will say: after writing something down you may want to practice what you will say. This may take the edge off or reduce anxiety. Remember – it’s ok to be scared and nervous. You are doing something very courageous which you will most likely thank yourself for
  3. Go to a familiar place to have the conversation: you and your friend may have a favourite spot to hang out – by going there to open up, it may relax you because it brings back good memories. This could be your Student Union centre, coffee shop or local park.

In the spirit of the campaign to disclose to friends at university, I am going to tell you how I told my friends in the hope that this will inspire you.

When I decided to tell my friends at university that I had been diagnosed with anorexia and depression and decided to take the year off studying to focus on my mental health, I had no idea how to do it! I knew that a big group of my church friends would be meeting up for the weekly student group and I felt this was the right time to do it as I was then, in the middle of treatment. I wrote down everything I wanted to say and emailed it to a close friend to read on my behalf as I wasn’t able to be there in person. I explained my diagnosis, where I was and how I felt. I was scared, very emotional and confused.

After, I am happy to say that I got a lot of wonderful, loving comments giving me hope and inspiration that I was doing the right thing. My friends reassured me that they would be there to support and encourage me to carry on, even when it felt rough and too hard to handle.

So, to everyone reading this, thank you. To those who are going to open up to their friend(s), it is such a relief once you tell someone, you don’t feel alone anymore and someone is there – to listen, to give you a hug or a pat on the back, telling you to carry on because it gets easier and life gets brighter.

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day is an annual event to promote the mental health of those who live and work in higher education settings. To find out how to get involved in the day, and to find out more about the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, visit www.studentminds.org.uk/uni-mental-health-day.