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'Recovery is possible': A third of people seeking help for eating disorders have had one for over 10 years

Charity Bodywhys said that a large number seeking help 10 years on have never accessed any form of treatment.

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OVER A THIRD of people calling the charity Bodywhys’ support helpline have experienced an eating disorder for over 10 years.

“There’s such a high percentage of people across all our services who’ve had an eating disorder for well over a decade,” Bodywhys training and development manager Harriet Parsons told TheJournal.ie.

“Some people come to us and are only talking about it for the first time.”

There are around 200,000 people in Ireland affected by eating disorders and, according to figures from the Health Research Board, 12% of all child and adolescent admissions to psychiatric units and hospitals in 2016 were due to an eating disorder.

Bodywhys has reported a 10% increase in the use of its support services in 2016, compared to the previous year. It responds to email queries, offers online and face-to-face support groups and a helpline.

So what exactly is an eating disorder?

Bodywhys’ Barry Murphy described an eating disorder as a “serious and complex mental health issue where a person experiences a significant disturbance in their relationship with food, weight and body”.

It can have a negative impact on a person’s quality of life, and their physical and mental health.

He added: “Eating disorders are characterised by behaviours such as self-starvation, bingeing, ‘purging’ through vomiting, over-exercising or laxative abuse.

However, eating disorders are not primarily about food – it’s about a person’s sense of who they are.

Range of supports needed

With the numbers availing of its services up across the board, Parsons said that it is clear that “people affected by eating disorders require a range of support services”.

She said: “Increased attendance at both our online and face-to-face groups shows that people want to hear from others going through similar experiences.

Support groups can play a role in lessening feelings of isolation which are common amongst those affected by eating disorders.

In 2010, a study in The Lancet said that 1 in 20 people would experience an eating disorder in their lifetime and Bodywhys has been keen to stress that eating disorders can affect people of any gender and at any age.

Parsons said that it’s not always teenagers availing of these services, and this was reflected in the number of people who’ve suffered from eating disorders for a prolonged period of time.

“There’s a good percentage of people who come to us a decade later who have tried things that just haven’t worked.

One of the main messages we would give out then is that just because a treatment hasn’t worked, it doesn’t mean that another treatment won’t as well.

“The crucial part is having somebody”

Parsons said that with treatment, in whatever form it takes from attending therapy to psychiatric support, it is vital that it is tailored to suit that person to help them recover.

“When they come to us,” she said, “we would very clearly talk them through what the different pathways for treatment are. Depending on how physically unwell they are, their kind of personality – there are a lot of factors. Certain things will work for certain people.”

A vital aspect of treatment is that the person with an eating disorder is working with a professional they feel they can trust in this process.

“And it’s important to work with families, too,” Parsons said. “It can be incredibly tricky. Families are in a state of completely not knowing what to do.

We help them try to develop the skills that can bring about a recovery for their children or siblings. Give them a sense of how they can take back control of a situation.

Parsons said that while much has been done to raise awareness of mental health issues as a whole in society, eating disorders still have a degree of stigma attached to them.

She said: “People are becoming more comfortable talking about mental health issues, like depression and suicide. But I think eating disorders are still quite hidden.

The important thing to remember is that it is possible to recover. Although that can sound monumental and frightening for someone going through it. It is possible to take a first step in letting it go.

The Bodywhys helpline can be reached at 1890 200 444, and support and a listening ear can be accessed via alex@bodywhys.ie.

Read: ‘In my head, I didn’t deserve to be helped. I was broken and couldn’t be fixed’

Read: Getting help: What to do if you or someone you know has an eating disorder

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