By Hope Virgo

Back in March 2016 I published a book which documents my journey of recovery from anorexia. It will tell you about my relationship with my best friend. My best friend who I completely trusted up until I nearly died, hit rock bottom, and had to begin to recover. The book was the most open I had ever been about my anorexia. A few people knew, but very few knew the extent of my illness, the extent of the things anorexia made me do. Things that I am not proud of, but things that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. My book has helped educate others on what anorexia really is, it has given insight into the tormenting voice that people have in their heads when they are living with anorexia.    

The reality is, it hasn’t been an easy year opening up so honestly. I don’t want to paint this happy perfect picture of it all, but we must not lose heart. We must keep talking about mental health so that other people feel able to.

It is brilliant to see society talking about mental health, and the government making small amounts of progress to provide more support for people struggling. But the reality is that it isn’t fast enough, and the myths that come with eating disorders are still at the forefront of so many minds.

I want to highlight two of my biggest concerns that are fuelled by the myths that come with eating disorders:

1. Being thin enough to be diagnosed with anorexia

Over the last year I have met so many people who are struggling with anorexia, but some are not getting the support they need. One girl (aged 25) told me that: “A few years’ prior my doctor pointed out I was ‘the wrong kind of skinny’… My GP essentially was on anorexia’s side. Essentially saying I wasn’t skinny enough”.

It is heart-breaking meeting these individuals who want help but aren’t able to access it because they aren’t underweight enough!

Anorexia is not a one-size-fits-all model: it is so much deeper than that. We need to move away from the mindset that all anorexic people are stick thin and look deeper. When I was in recovery from anorexia my weight seemed to go up so quickly, but my mind took much longer to catch up. I felt like a fake anorexic, like people didn’t realise that the anorexia in my head was still shouting at me every day. Every day pushing me down, telling me I was failing me, telling me I was fat, worthless and deserved to die.

When I was in recovery from anorexia my weight seemed to go up so quickly, but my mind took much longer to catch up... the anorexia in my head was still shouting at me every day. 

When I relapsed in 2016 I was turned away from specialist NHS support because I wasn’t underweight. I was lucky that I have such a strong network of support to help get me back on track but there are so many people who don’t have that. People who will fall through the cracks and be left to manage on their own. People who will hit crisis and then be left with so much more work to be done to repair them.

Attitudes need to change so that we look beyond a person’s weight to the deep-rooted issues of the eating disorder before we lose more people to anorexia.

2. Not understanding what an eating disorder is or knowing how to spot them

Did you know that on average, 149 weeks pass before those experiencing eating disorder symptoms seek help?

So often people don’t know what to look for if someone has an eating disorder. We live in a society where diet talk is the norm, and where people are too scared of upsetting others so they don’t speak up.

I hid my anorexia for four years before I got any help and this was no one else’s fault. Anorexia is such a secretive illness and I got very good at hiding it from everyone around me. Anorexia nearly killed me and the work to get well was so hard. It was the hardest year of my life battling to put on the weight, and then struggling to adjust to normal life when I was eating again. If my illness had been caught earlier, perhaps it would not have taken as long to get better.

Anorexia is such a secretive illness and I got very good at hiding it from everyone

I know it is scary opening up; it’s hard to approach someone if you are worried about them, but we need to get better at it. If you are worried about a friend then please do reach out, ask them if they are okay. I am no longer ashamed of my story but I want to use it to educate the nation so that we all know how to spot someone who may be struggling with their mental health.

If we really want to see long term change, the stigma attached to mental health problems must keep being battled. We must find ways to open up more, and keep telling our GPs if we need that help. We must educate ourselves and each other about what mental illness really is. We need to take this understanding beyond stereotypical images and stories and look deeper so that we can offer more support to those struggling.

It has been brilliant seeing so many people speaking out if they are worried about their mental health and asking for support, but this problem seems to be increasing. The number of people needing to access services, the people being left until they hit crisis…. I could go on. It is essential that we act soon before the mental health crisis goes deeper and more people are left for weeks, months and even years without any support. Reaching out for help is hard enough in itself and we cannot afford to let people be left with nothing.

Let’s use this year to keep the momentum up, keep people talking and educate ourselves so we increase our understanding. We must make sure mental health stays in the central limelight until real change happens.

If you’re struggling and want to access support, please reach out to Beat or one of our other recommended helplines.

Hope's book, Stand Tall Little Girl, is available here.