Eating Disorders: “There’s no set definition of recovery”

Shauna Burdis

At the end of 2019, the Coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise. Scientists worked long and hard over the past year to develop a sufficient vaccine, and they succeeded.

But as the pandemic is slowly regressing due to the vaccination rollout programme taking place across the world, there are still other deadly illnesses that cannot be deterred by vaccination immunity.

In Ireland, there was a 66 per cent increase in eating disorder (ED) hospital admissions during the pandemic.

According to an article published in the Irish Medical Journal in January, a number of factors are likely playing a role in the significant increase, including distress, anxiety relating to the pandemic, the impact of restrictions, a sense of social isolation, pre-existing morbidity, and more time online which may facilitate increased exposure to ED-specific provoking media.

In February, Dr. Aoife O’Sullivan, a GP treating University College Cork (UCC) students, wrote in the about the impact of the pandemic on her patients.

O’Sullivan, who has been working with students with eating disorders for years detailed her experience of seeing a rise of students coming to her with mental health problems.

She stated that: “Eating disorders are not necessarily all about food or weight – they are also about coping.”

In 2018, the HSE launched the National Eating Disorder Treatment Plan, which was created to ensure access to specialist care across the country.

In 2018, €1.5 million was allocated to the plan. Just €137,000 was spent.

In 2019, €1.6 million was allocated. €0 was spent.

In 2020, funding was suspended.

The money that was not spent on specialist care for those suffering from eating disorders, was used in previous years to shore up underfunded mental health services elsewhere.

According to the HSE, the balance of €3.94 million of previous funding remains in place.

A major issue Covid-19 highlighted throughout the world was the serious flaw rooted in the world’s health care system, hospitals were being overwhelmed with cases and governments imposed tight restrictions on civilians in order to curb a surge in hospitalisations.

Covid-19 triggered a long-awaited admittance that there is not adequate services and capacity within hospitals and rehabilitation centres to accommodate those suffering from ED’s like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder.

Speaking to The College View, Barry Murphy from Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, said that eating disorders are very individual and can be developed for a number of reasons.

“In life, we go through a lot of transitions like puberty and adolescents. So big changes in life like bullying and things like trauma can have a huge impact.

“Abuse and those transitions like moving school or some sort of upheaval or turmoil in a person’s life and it’s kind of a combination of all those factors rather than one on its own, that can just be a perfect storm of eventually leading a person to engage with those risky behaviours. Whether it’s purging or anorexia, restricting, binge eating or overeating”.

Eating Disorder organisations like Bodywhys also highlight the importance of being aware if someone around you is struggling with an eating disorder.

“It can be quite hard in some cases and I think you have to point out that it’s very different from picky eating, what you see, unfortunately, is you see a deterioration of the person,” said Murphy.

“ It’s kind of apparent that there is something going on, so a deterioration in their physical, emotional and mental health so something like anorexia, the weight loss would be quite noticeable, and it may be a little bit harder to notice binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

“I would keep in mind any sort of change in personality of the person trips to the bathroom that seems a little bit unusual, young girls and young women can lose their periods.

“They feel they have to do this behaviour to cope because its ultimately a coping mechanism that they’ve developed, probably very much in secret. Sometimes we also see a lack of flexibility in them. So they just don’t have the ability to be flexible in terms of their thinking patterns, which can be quite rigid and black and white and kind of distorted,” he said.

When asked about how to support someone who is struggling Murphy responded: “It’s very difficult and you have to be very mindful of your expectations from the outset. Keep your expectations very mild at the start because you know you’re not going to solve it in one conversation or even two or three conversations.

“Try to find a time and a place where things are calm and quiet, where you feel you can bring it up.

“You do need to be informed first when you bring it up and it’s not about focusing on behaviour and don’t get into any confrontation dynamic,” he said.

Murphy also highlights that the road to recovery is different for everyone: “It’s very individual again, there’s no set definition of recovery.

“It takes time that’s the main thing you have to keep in mind and it can be one step forward, two steps back, or relapses and it’s about the whole picture, t’s not just about the food and weight side of things.

“It’s about how the person ultimately thinks about themselves, that is a really important factor. On the treatment side, it’s about trying to address the underlying issues as well, that may have contributed to the eating disorder coming apart of the person’s life in the first place.

“People have a very different experience and descriptions of an eating disorder and you could read different books and get different opinions on it, it’s a very slow burn kind of experience as well, so that’s important to keep in mind.” He said.

If you have been affected by anything in this article you can reach out to online or ring their helpline on 01-2107906.

Shauna Burdis

Image credit: Psychology Today