Content Warning: eating disorders, depression, anxiety
I sat down with mental health campaigner Hope Virgo, the keynote speaker for the University of Edinburgh’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Week and discussed both her struggle with, and recovery from, anorexia. We discussed how this inspired her to campaign to change the way in which eating disorders are viewed and treated by the NHS. She also spoke about her view of the impact of social media on mental health, and what the best ways to help a friend or family member who may be struggling with an eating disorder are. Visit her petition to help make the change that is needed in eating disorder treatment.
What made you become a mental health campaigner?
I had anorexia from the age of 12, and lived with it for about five years before being admitted to a mental health hospital. Then in 2016, I relapsed and tried to get support from NHS services as I knew what was happening to me. Unfortunately, because my BMI (Body Mass Index) wasn’t underweight there was no support available for me. I felt really suicidal, and didn’t know how I was ever going to get through this. When I came through the other side I realised there’s this whole misunderstanding around eating disorders that you have to be stick thin, whereas for me I was physically healthy but mentally struggling. I wanted to become a campaigner to change that attitude and understanding, but also to share my story to help break the stigma and show that you can recover from an eating disorder. It is difficult, but it is possible, to live your life fully and not have that anorexic voice dictating everything you do.
What advice do you have for anyone who is worried about a friend or family member who might be struggling with an eating disorder?
If you are worried about someone with an eating disorder, it’s important to find the words to say. A lot of people will shut you down and pretend everything is okay. It’s about being patient and understanding. I also think when having that conversation, having it away from food but also organising events that are away from restaurants and food so that the person doesn’t become socially isolated. It is scary, but there is a chance that person could end up in hospital, whereas these conversations can prevent that happening.
Do you think the current focus on mental health and depression is taking away from eating disorders?
I think people don’t fully understand what eating disorders are, and they are glamourised in the media when in reality they are the worst thing in the world. You have horrific side effects, for example I don’t really have any teeth at the back of my mouth, as they crumbled from when I was really unwell, and people don’t understand or realise these kind of things. I think often people think it’s just a phase, and although it’s great we are talking more about depression and anxiety, we still aren’t doing enough to raise awareness of eating disorders.
What do you think the role of social media is with regard to eating disorders/mental health in general?
I think social media has a positive and a negative role to play. It can encourage really negative behaviours, particularly around eating disorders and negative content such as before and after photos or pro-anorexic content. With anorexia you can feel very competitive, so it’s important to cut sites and people off your social media that are triggering to you. I think positively it can be used to raise awareness of mental health. Also with eating disorders there are a lot of recovery groups that can actually inspire other people trying to recover to get to a point where they can eat a bit more or put a bit of weight on, and so it offers that kind of support as well. It’s all about embracing these groups but also taking things with a pinch of salt, and realising that as individuals we need to monitor what we find helpful.
Where does change need to come from?
I think as a societal thing, we need to keep talking and have more people sharing their stories. People with mental health issues are often thought of as weak, whereas we are really strong people who shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s about using stories to lobby the government to make long-term change, as they have this false understanding that everything is okay as they have guidelines in place, but the reality is that is a load of rubbish, and it’s about empowering people to change that for the better.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
In July I launched a campaign called ‘Dump the Scales’, about making sure that the NICE guidelines for eating disorders are implemented across the country. At the moment hundreds of people every day are turned away from support because they are not underweight, despite mentally really struggling, but the NHS don’t feel like they can offer them any services. So what I’m doing is working with the government to try and change this, and there’s a petition that currently has over 65,000 signatures, but we need 100,000 to get it to Downing Street and keep the momentum going.
Image: Andrew Perry