Mental Health Today expands its Disorders Explained information section today, incorporating anorexia for the first time. Disorders Explained, along with our crisis care campaigning efforts this past year, has been made possible through voluntary payments made by you, readers of our pay-wall free website.

We're focussing on anorexia for three reasons:

We need to respond to the person first, the anorexia second

The theme of world mental health day this year is young people. Much is currently made of the impact of social media on this demographic; much has always been made of the impact of traditional media on body image. Such generalisations do people a gross disservice and confound rather than confront recovery prospects.

"We should reflect on the messages provided by people who have lived through anorexia."

Ask Nicola. Nicola features in our Living with Anorexia videos. "I had just moved school and didn’t know anyone," she recalls. "No-one understood that I was struggling with my health. I almost used the anorexia to show people physically that I was struggling. I just wanted someone to ask me how I was." Life, fundamentally and all that it comprises, has the biggest impact on mental health.

Social or psychological isolation seems to feature commonly in anorexia, as with other mental health conditions. "I was depressed for two years before the anorexia crept up on me," Nicola continues. Food and exercise were things Nicola could control, initially at least, so that’s what she focussed on. When her freedom to prepare meals was taken away from her, “this only made me want to rebel more. Regimented meal plans can work for some people with anorexia, those who find the kitchen and meals a source of stress, but for me I only recovered when I persuaded my doctors to allow me supervised control of preparing my own food.”

This approach helped Nicola to rediscover a love of cooking, the presentation, the preparation and the cooking itself. She still doesn’t enjoy feeling bloated, she says, but has developed recipes that prevent that sensation. She has pursued creative outlets both to channel her emotions and energies, and to occupy her hands.

Anorexia is deadly

Anorexia Explained has been curated by three people for whom anorexia has played a significant part in their lives. Nicola was only diagnosed after an overdose. Liv Pontin, a social researcher who has co-authored the sub-site, has also been hospitalised for her mental health. "Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of psychological illnesses," she writes. "It can cause serious physical complications, and has a significant impact on relationships, work and education."

The suicide mortality rate for those struggling with anorexia is one of the highest of psychological disorders. This can increase at times throughout recovery, especially during early recovery stages, as the common guilt of increasing intake or restoring weight increases. Any thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously.   

Dr Alex Joy supports anorexia recovery in her role as an NHS eating disorders specialist. The psychiatrist features in eight videos, answering questions ranging from ‘What to expect if you’re referred’ to ‘What treatment options are available’. She provides a precious service. Her videos seek to provide an honest introduction to the condition and support options. Together they represent just that, an introduction. A referral to see a psychiatrist can be made by your GP.

Talking therapies might also be sourced this way. Waiting times can vary and private care is another option, for those who can afford it. If you are reading this as a member of the public, whoever you want to support yourself or your family - identify them and seek it early.

Recovery can't be forced

Anorexia most commonly comes on in people’s teenage years and professional responses can sometime still feel ‘paternal’ or ‘maternal’; reactive rather than responsive. Protective instincts and practice are of course well-intentioned. We should reflect on the messages provided by people who have lived through anorexia however.

If anorexia is commonly a response to losing control of one’s life, then attempting to deliver prescriptive responses are often going to encounter significant challenges. Far better to start conversations early, listening to what the individual says they need when they first need it. We share today a range of techniques that people who have lived with anorexia say have helped – and continue to help – themselves. We hope MHT’s videos and information help you through your journey, whether you’re living it directly or indirectly, as a member of the public, a mental health professional, a family member, or some or all of the above.

How does this story make you feel? Share your views using #MHTchat and #WorldMentalHealthDay2018. Join us on Twitter to discuss live on Wednesday October 10th, 12pm (UK time).

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