As Eating Disorder Awareness Week kicks off today, we catch up with Diana Award recipient Lottie Leach to explore how we can all help de-stigmatise mental health and dispel myths relating to eating disorders.
Eating Disorders are complex mental illnesses that affect an estimated 1.25 million in the UK. But, like other mental health conditions, they are often stigmatised and misunderstood. Eating Disorder Awareness Week aims to combat this through encouraging discussion and challenging the associated stigma to ensure that people experiencing eating disorders are met with understanding and compassion.
We caught up with 2020 Diana Award recipient Lottie Leach, to ask what Eating Disorder Awareness Week means to her and why it is important:
“It is vital that people understand that an eating disorder goes further than a war with ‘not liking yourself’. It is one of the toughest battles you will face; it certainly was for me. Eating Disorder Awareness Week is so important because it helps to educate others, so they see beyond the physical aspects of an eating disorder.”
Lottie received her Diana Award for her work to raise awareness of mental health. After attempting to take her own life following years of living with depression and an eating disorder, she was determined to make a positive impact. By speaking openly about her own mental health experiences in assemblies and workshops, she aims to educate pupils, staff, and parents. She also raised over £3,000 for mental health charity, Mind, by organising a ‘24-Hour Danceathon.’
Lottie’s work can inspire us all to take action to de-stigmatise mental health within our schools and communities. You too could organise a virtual fundraiser for an eating disorder charity like Beat or hold a class discussion to debunk myths about mental health illnesses – the possibilities are endless!
In collaboration with Lottie, we’ve listed five misconceptions about eating disorders to actively challenge this week:
1. Eating disorders only affect teenage girls who want to be skinny.
“When I was growing up, there was a lot of glamourisation of ‘skinny girls.’ This wasn’t just on social media; it was everywhere. I often found that when I was struggling, professionals would point to this as the root cause of my eating disorder.”
Eating disorders are not simply about ‘being skinny.’ Whilst negative body image may play a role, there are many other contributing factors. Overwhelming anxiety surrounding appearance may be a sign of body dysmorphia – it is important to seek help from a GP if you are constantly worrying about body image.
Absolutely anyone can experience an eating disorder and there are many different types. The narrative that only white teenage girls experience eating disorders is extremely damaging – and it can discourage anyone who does not fit this stereotype from seeking help. According to a YouGov Poll, only 52% of people from minority ethnicities feel comfortable seeking help from healthcare professionals in comparison to 64% of white British people.
Eating disorders are not just experienced by those who identify as female; anybody of any gender can experience disordered eating. In fact, studies suggest that up to a quarter of those experiencing eating disorders identify as male.
2. Eating disorders are a ‘phase’ or ‘part of growing up and being a teenager.’
“These are damaging phrases which brush mental health under the carpet and ignore the fact that often, an eating disorder isn’t about external factors, it is an internal fight with ‘Rex’ (as I called her) and the mental battle you face with yourself every day.”
Eating disorders are not a ‘phase’ – they are extremely dangerous mental illnesses that can be fatal if untreated.
3. Social media is to blame.
“Even in school talks, I can’t tell you the number of times I would hear the words ‘social media’ and ‘eating disorders’ in the same sentence; it would make me roll my eyes.”
While social media can negatively impact mental health, it is often not the sole cause of eating disorders. There are many other possible contributing factors, such as bullying behaviour and abuse.
4. Recovery is Easy.
“Professionals, teachers and adults in general need to be aware that the recovery process is long, tiring and it may fluctuate. Although a young person may be fine one month, the next month could be a different story and adults should be aware that this is okay and is all part of the recovery process.”
We need to challenge the notion that eating disorders have a finite timeframe. It is an ongoing battle and even those in recovery can relapse at any point.
5. Only the person experiencing the eating disorder needs support.
“Within schools, teachers and heads of pastoral care should provide support for the friendship group surrounding the person suffering.”
Caring for someone who is experiencing an eating disorder can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Therefore, it is important to show love and support not only to the individual living with an eating disorder, but also those around them. Whether this is in the form of formal counselling, chats with friends, peer support or support groups. Remember the saying “You can’t pour from an empty cup” – you need to look after your own wellbeing and resources to best support your loved one.
So, whether it be organising an online event to debunk these myths or simply asking someone how they are feeling, everyone has a part to play in raising awareness of mental health this week.
And for those battling an eating disorder, remember, as Lottie does:
“Tomorrow is a new day. Whatever you’re facing today, whatever happened today, it won’t be the same tomorrow. It’s a clean slate with new feelings and new events. If it’s a bad day, hold on until tomorrow.”
You are never alone with your eating disorder. There is love and support for people who have or are worried they have an eating disorder, as well as others affected, such as friends and family members.
Here are some of Lottie’s suggestions for actions you could take to de-stigmatise mental health in your school or communities:
If you would like to follow Lottie’s mental health work, please follow her Instagram account – @time.2talk_ – where she has conversations each week with various guests talking about their mental health experience.
Below is a list of organisations, support, and resources.
For a young person experiencing an eating disorder:
For those supporting a loved one or friend:
For those who want to learn more about eating disorders and the signs to spot: