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Never turn someone away because they are ‘not thin enough’ to have anorexia

Healthcare professionals can help challenge the stigma around eating disorders and take opportunities to prevent illness from escalating

Healthcare professionals can help challenge the stigma around eating disorders and take opportunities to prevent illness from escalating

Picture shows Hope Virgo holding a set of scales. She says in this article that healthcare professionals can help challenge the stigma around eating disorders and take opportunities to prevent illness from escalating.
Mental health campaigner Hope Virgo, who launched the #DumpTheScales campaign

If I ask you to imagine an anorexic person, I can almost guarantee that the first image that comes into your head is of a girl, probably around puberty, who looks extremely gaunt, bones slightly jutting out.

This is the image that comes to mind for so many of us when we think of someone with anorexia, but it is this perception that risks people with eating disorders not reaching out for support, or not receiving it when they do.

This worry was realised when I went to the doctor for help when I relapsed, only to be told: ‘You aren’t thin enough.’

Being turned away from services because of body mass index is not a one-off thing

After being turned away from services I felt like a failure, and spent the next few weeks at a complete loss, coming close to ending my life.

I had spent a year in hospital recovering from anorexia when I was 17, so my family knew what they could do to support me, but so many people do not have this sort of network of people who understand what to do.

Being turned away from services because of body mass index (BMI) isn’t a one-off thing that happened just to me. It happens to many people every day across the NHS, and it is neither right nor consistent with current recommendations.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines advise that healthcare professionals ‘do not use single measures such as BMI or duration of illness to determine whether to offer treatment for an eating disorder’.

Yet these guidelines are not always followed, at the cost of patients’ health and well-being.

Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes

To change this, I launched the #DumpTheScales campaign, and we have made some fantastic progress locally in London but also nationally with ministers and government.

We never know, when we meet someone, if this is the first time they have felt able to share their experiences. And we need to remember that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes so that we don’t judge people based on what they look like.

There are also a few things healthcare professionals can do to help challenge the stigma around eating disorders and to make sure we don’t miss opportunities to prevent illness from escalating.

Do’s and don’ts for healthcare professionals

Do

  • Have a plan in place after you have spoken to someone about an eating disorder. This is essential as the person may not feel able to open up with someone else again
  • Notice when someone goes to the bathroom straight after a meal or manages to avoid mealtimes. I saw this recently when I visited someone in an emergency department. A girl had come in because she had collapsed. At mealtimes she laid out food on her bed so the catering staff wouldn’t give her any more. As soon as they left, she put it away. This type of behaviour should initiate conversations
  • Listen and keep an open mind

Don't

  • Tell someone they don’t weigh the right amount to have an eating disorder. People with an eating disorder must not feel compelled to prove anything
  • Think eating disorders are just about feeding someone
  • Prescribe someone who is overweight with a weight loss programme without talking to them about their well-being. People with binge eating disorder often feel they are being judged about their weight. This needs to be challenged so they can receive support

Picture of Hope Virgo, who is an author and mental health campaigner. She says in this article that healthcare professionals can help challenge the stigma around eating disorders and take opportunities to prevent illness from escalating.Hope Virgo is an author and mental health campaigner

 

 

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