Eating Disorders: How to help people suffering in silence - RSA

Eating Disorders: How to help people suffering in silence


  • Picture of Hope Virgo
    Hope Virgo
    Hope Virgo
  • Mental health
  • Health & wellbeing

It is estimated that across the UK there are over 1.6 million people living with an eating disorder; these are the people who have been diagnosed but there are so many others struggling. There is, more often than not, a common denominator - these individuals are too embarrassed to talk about it. I used to be so embarrassed too and even since opening up about my story, there are parts of it that when I talk about, people look at me like I am ‘mad’.

Over the last year I have met so many people from different backgrounds, different ages, male and female - all of them have a different story to tell. While these stories are all unique, there are often lots of similarities which each other and some with my story. These similarities are predominately around the care that people received, or lack of care in some cases. For a lot of people with anorexia, treatment around their weight is also a concern; this is something that has also impacted me in the past when people make offhand remarks or don’t take you seriously because you don’t look like the “typical anorexic”.

From the age of 13 to 17, I struggled with anorexia, but no one knew. At the age of 13, I found life tough. I didn’t enjoy much about it and to top it all off, I was sexually abused by a close family friend. I absolutely hated the feelings of guilt and the shame that the sexual abuse left me with. I was embarrassed about it and I didn’t know who to talk to. I hated feeling unhappy, and I hated the way I felt about myself. I needed something in life to take this feelings away and make it all okay. That is when I became best friends with anorexia.

At first I was apprehensive but as I recognised the joy I got from missing meals and exercising all the time, I began to think it was worth it. My days and weeks gradually began to revolve around food. I would sit in lessons at school, day dreaming about the next time I could exercise or plan how I would miss dinner that night. One Sunday, I announced that I was now a vegetarian and so I wouldn’t be able to eat any meals with the family if there was meat.

I spent the next few years rebelling, going out all the time, sneaking in to clubs with friends, and not eating. I was doing what the anorexic voice in my head told me to do and I was so good at it. I learnt new tactics to lose weight and as my parents began to interfere with my eating, I pushed on, stuck with it and made myself happy. When I missed a meal, or skipped a snack, or went to the gym for longer I felt like I had won a gold medal. The feelings of happiness at first for doing this was addictive and pushed me further. Yes, over time I had to work harder to feel happier, skip a few more meals but I didn’t care. Anything was worth it for these feelings. I didn’t care about upsetting my family, all I wanted was to be the best at being anorexic.

Over time it got harder and the months that followed I was losing control. Anorexia began to scold me more than reassure me what I was doing was right. That was when I was no longer always enjoying anorexia. I sometimes hated her but she seduced me back in every time. Reassuring me that it was hard work being the best but being her best friend was worth it in the long run. I wasn’t to know that a year later my heart would nearly stop and I would be admitted to a mental health hospital where I would live for the next year of my life.

Not many people know that anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness. Between 5% and 20% of people who develop the disease eventually die from it. Looking back, I am so lucky that I got the support that I needed, but I know people who have lost their lives to anorexia.

The truth is, if we don’t maintain momentum and keep talking about mental health, things are not going to get any better. People who are living with eating disorders but managing to stay alive are going to lose control.

So what can you do during this eating disorder awareness week and moving forward for the millions of people with mental health problems?

1. If you are worried about someone – say something! Don’t leave it until it is too late.

2. If you have a colleague who struggles with food, let them choose where to go for a team lunch.

3. Don’t comment on what people are eating. Whilst I am sure you mean no harm, some of these comments can have a negative impact on the person.

4. If you are struggling yourself, find someone you trust to talk to! Don’t give up fighting to get well.

Follow Hope on twitter @HopeVirgo 

You can also find her book here:

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