As with many other mental illnesses, eating disorders are misunderstood. They are not fads, phases, or ‘diets gone wrong’. Assumptions abound: they affect white, middle-class, teenage girls, who starve themselves to look like models they see in magazines.
Images perpetuate the stereotype: slim women are portrayed standing on scales, unhappy with the numbers, or they see an imagined fat version of themselves reflected in a mirror. But this is not the reality.
Eating disorders are serious illnesses which take on many forms. The most prolific are non-typical eating disorders, which include binge-eating disorder. Anorexia is the least common, affecting around one in 10 people with an eating disorder.
Stigma and misconceptions can make it harder to seek support – meaning the illness goes on for longer and making recovery a much more difficult process.
Despite the fact one in 10 sufferers is male, it takes men and boys almost three times as long to receive a referral to treatment following their first visit to a GP as a woman. More adults suffer from eating disorders than young people – our stereotypes mean older sufferers often go unnoticed.
While estimates suggest eating disorders affect more than 1.25 million people in the UK, the true figure could be far higher.
As part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I led a Westminster Hall debate to highlight that eating disorders do not discriminate and we need to break down the barriers to support.
The debate received powerful cross-party support, as my parliamentary colleagues sought to combat the increase in cases – and support their own constituents fighting this debilitating disease – by raising awareness.
While we talk frankly about physical problems, we struggle to do the same for mental illnesses; but it is ok to speak out, it is ok to ask for help.
The UK Government recognises the link between physical and mental health, and the physical embodiment of poor mental health in eating disorder sufferers. In 2014, it made £150 million available for eating disorder services as part of its Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. NHS England has now set up 70 new or enhanced community services, meaning at least 3,350 children and young people a year can be treated earlier and closer to home, avoiding trips to hospital. I am seeking a commitment from the Scottish Government in Holyrood to mirror that ambition so my constituents have the same access to support.
We have also set new waiting time standards for eating disorder services: by 2020-21 all ‘routine’ cases in children and young people should be seen within four weeks and all ‘urgent’ cases within one week. The latest figures show more than 8 in 10 ‘urgent’ cases and almost 9 in 10 ‘routine’ cases were seen within those timeframes.
The UK Government has also set up new mental health teams in schools. Around 8,000 new NHS staff will work closely with those teams to deliver enhanced support and I know some schools in Scotland are carrying out similar measures. However, we need to ensure that it is not a postcode lottery but a basic service provided to all, irrespective of where you live.
We need to show those who have suffered, who are suffering and who do not yet know they will suffer that the government is on their side. We have to help those who are helpless, through no fault of their own, because that is what government is here to do - help you when you cannot help yourself.