Dying to get treatment, part four: time for NHS eating disorder services to change

The NHS logo with cracks - doctors stage a 5-day strike
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Content warning: this article contains mentions of eating disorders, disordered behaviours, and other content. It may be triggering to those in recovery or who are currently suffering from an eating disorder. Reader discretion is advised.

Across three articles, I’ve been on a journey of discovery surrounding eating disorder services. In part one I explored the state of NHS services; in part two my friend told me about her lived experience of negotiating said services and how they were lacking; in part three I looked at different healthcare treatment options in the US (albeit only to those with the right insurance).

In the fourth and final part of this series, I wanted to reflect on my own experience of not only suffering from bulimia nervosa but also NHS and then private online treatment. And I found that in the UK, the system is in desperate need of a root and branch overhaul to make treatment more accessible and effective.

My own battles with bulimia drove me to make the truth known

As I mentioned in part one of this series, I spent six years on a waiting list for treatment for bulimia nervosa. Through those six years, I felt abandoned and hopeless. It fed into the toxic mindset many disordered individuals will recognise: ‘I’m not sick enough to deserve help’. I spiralled over and over, attempting to recover on my own then relapsing. No wonder I did. I didn’t know how to fix the psychological issues driving me to act in a disordered manner.

I eventually got into services aged 18. Not because I was bingeing two times a week, abusing laxatives, or self-harming every day. It was all because my BMI dipped below 18.5. That meant I was finally ‘thin enough’ for the services to intervene. Treatment lasted two months before I left, absolutely disgusted, and baffled at the methods they were trying with me.

My ‘therapy’ gave me no tools to deal with urges to binge. It gave me no insight into how to change my mindset. Nothing addressed my irrational perspective of food and weight. All that occurred was weekly weigh-ins and a food journal I had to complete. Instead, I sought private online treatment. I recovered completely within six months. If that doesn’t illustrate what is wrong with the NHS’s approach to eating disorder treatment, I don’t know what does.

So where do we go from here?

There is no doubt that the NHS, as a whole, needs renovation. It’s clear that the current system is not working and not meeting the needs of those who require treatment. Whilst the NHS is criticised, little is offered in way of possible solutions. What it truly needs is adequate funding, not privatisation. Funding is needed to train GPs on the specifics of spotting and diagnosing eating disorders so people are directed to treatment during the early stages of their illnesses. Funding is needed so that treatment can be updated and broadened. Funding is needed so more medical staff can receive specialised training to provide this treatment. And funding is needed so that services aren’t stretched and to enable people to access treatment at any time without waiting months or years.

Read on...

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People are dying because of our outdated, underfunded, and under-resourced system that has been sucked dry by funding cuts. The Department for Health needs to be held accountable and forced to give the NHS the funding it desperately needs rather than privatising services and making them even more inaccessible. Our healthcare system was set up to keep the population healthy and heal us when we are physically or mentally unwell. Yet, it cannot perform these actions because of the choices made by our government.

Aside from the changes needed in the NHS services, the government needs to change its relationship with Big Food companies

Those who control our country prefer to protect ‘Big Food’ companies’ profits than to help our population eat better. These companies make us sicker and create massive health issues. Our government has responded half-heartedly to the obesity crisis without truly addressing some of the key causes of this problem. Restricted access to nutritious food, poor nutritional education, and the wide availability of hyper-palatable food are huge factors in the obesity crisis. Are profit and industry truly what is of the utmost importance to those who run our country? Judging by the fact they ignore the research and facts about the food industry, it would appear so.

There are so many complexities at play when it comes to the food which people eat. Whilst a major issue is the availability of whole and nutritious foods in deprived areas, other personal factors come into the overall crisis. People struggle to cook due to a lack of time because of their work hours. Those living with physical and mental disabilities or conditions also struggle with being able to make themselves affordable and healthy meals. There is no easy solution, yet there are still steps that would help, such as greater taxes on foods with high levels of sugar and salt.

I wanted to give a voice to those who shared my experience with the NHS eating disorder services

I have a great deal of anger towards the eating disorder services in the UK. Following years of political intervention, we’ve been left with an NHS that abandons so many people, just like me, on waiting lists. Their stories, their struggles, the complete hopelessness, and the loss of faith they’ve experienced mirror my own experience. Then there are the news stories about individuals dying due to their disorder and the abysmal treatment they receive. With all of this in mind, I believe my anger is justified and valid.

This article was the manifestation of that anger. By writing this, I hope I gave a voice to abandoned individuals. We may feel forgotten, but we have voices. And our voices are going to be heard. No one who’s been through the hell of an eating disorder wants to see another individual go through that. No one wants others to succumb to their illness. How many more must suffer or die due to an outdated health service that refuses to update its approach?

So many systems in our country need reformation; coronavirus has made that very clear. We need to campaign and put pressure on those in charge of the NHS and the country to make the changes that are needed. Changes that would save lives, enabling people to recover and rediscover a life beyond their eating disorder.

Featured image via Garry Knight – Flickr, under licence CC0 1.0

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Helplines and resources for you or if someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder of any kind:

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