People who suffer from eating disorders are facing unnecessary delays in getting treatment because of a lack of knowledge, Lancashire health experts have warned.
A report released this week claims 34 per cent of Lancashire adults are unable to name any symptoms, prompting concerns sufferers are facing unnecessary delays to start receiving treatment.
The research, commissioned by national charity Beat, has been published to mark Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Shelley French, manager of Lancashire Care Trust’s eating disorder service, said early identification can have a drastic impact on recovery timescales.
She told the Lancashire Post: “It’s crucial and it absolutely needs more awareness. People aren’t seeing it quick enough.
“If it is identified quickly, it might be six weeks of treatment through working with their family.
“Compared to someone who is in a lot worse position, you could be talking about hospital admission, time out of school or work and a bigger impact on their lives.
“We’re talking upwards of six months to a year.”
The research survey, conducted by major pollsters, YouGov, found that 18 per cent of UK adults “did not know”, any signs or symptoms, 14 per cent listed an eating disorder diagnosis like “bulimia” or “anorexia” rather than a sign or symptom and one per cent gave an incorrect answer.
Beat chief executive Andrew Radford said: “This research has showed us that in the UK many people still do not know how to identify an eating disorder in its early stages.
“These results are worrying because we know lack of awareness can stop sufferers getting the treatment they desperately need as soon as possible.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and when people are treated quickly after falling ill, they are much more likely to have a fast and sustained recovery.”
Ms French said schemes to raise awareness of mental health issues among the general population are making progress but emphasised there was a long way to go.
She referenced the Thrive model, which provides an online resource and source of advice for professionals who interact with young people, in addition to parents and carers, as one method that is making an impact.
She added: “We’re hoping to feed into that model to help the issues with early identification in relation to emotional health and wellbeing.”
Eating disorders, which include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, affects around 1.25 million people in the UK – with anorexia having a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness.
Beat says the lack of awareness on the early signs of an eating disorder is causing a delay in treatment and an increased risk of the illness becoming severe and enduring.
The results also revealed the psychological and behavioural signs of an eating disorder were being overlooked as 79 per cent were unable to name a common psychological sign such as low confidence and self-esteem.
Mr Radford added: “Today, we are asking that the Government and NHS invest in measures to increase awareness of the early signs and symptoms, heightened awareness will not only improve outcomes for those suffering but also prove cost effective for the services treating patients.”
Shelley Perry is the chief executive and founder of the Lancashire based charity organisation Support and Education for Eating Disorders (Seed).
Seed offers drop-in sessions and an advice service for sufferers, their families and carers. The charity also operates the not-for-profit private treatment service Breathe, for which she serves as director.
Shelley who has a long-established background in mental health care, had an eating disorder that developed in her teenage years through until her early-20s.
The 45-year-old used her own experiences and road to recovery as a template in setting up the much needed service that relies on donations.
She said: “Even when people become aware (that someone may have an eating disorder) there’s a tendency for there still to be an enormous stigma and fear around it and rather than be helpful people avoid the conversation. Because, out of fear, people think they may do more harm than good or they’re going to upset somebody.
“It’s really important that they come at the person with some gentle compassion and understanding; empathy.
“And so important the person doesn’t feel judged in any way because the likelihood is they already feel rubbish about themselves, whether they recognise it or not.”
In terms of identifying the problem at an early stage, she supports Beat’s message.
Shelley added: “It’s enormous to tackle it at an early stage, so it doesn’t become their normal. What we often see is parents have ignored it for a long time because (they think their child) will grow out of it because they’re having food fads or they were going through a phase.
“And then it’s only been from people outside the immediate family who make that observation and it’s that external input that then makes the difference.”
Spotting signs or symptoms of eating disorders may include identifying a combination of behaviours, she explains.
“It could be avoidance of food related events. Or, going to the toilet immediately after food or within half an hour. Just generally becoming more secretive around food, gaining or losing significant amount of weight.
“It’s important not to think it’s just anorexia, that’s only 10 per cent of people with eating disorder.
“Binge eating and compulsive eating get completely missed and there’s a huge amount of people who are struggling with those and can’t get the help the need.
“Just abnormal behaviours around food, either eating too much or eating too little or messing about with food, pushing it around the plate or being too intense around food.
“Again, that can go either way, the importance of having food around. Someone with bulimia might always want to have food around but then they’re going to bring it back or excessively exercise.”
Victoria Munley was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 14.
Describing her road to recovery, Victoria said: “I’d been in and out of NHS and specialist eating disorder services. For a long time I didn’t really want it to work, I was just doing it to please my parents.”
Diagnosed as suffering from anorexia aged 14, Victoria said her self-esteem had disintegrated in part because of cyber-bullying.
“I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve nice things and deserved to be punished,” she said.
She spent weeks in hospital around the time of her diagnosis. Underweight and malnourished, Victoria said her memory of aspects of her journey to recovery was affected as a result.
It was only when, aged 17, she came to eating disorder charity Breathe that she began to believe recovery was possible.
She said: “When I met my mentor Shelley and heard her story and saw she was doing amazing things, it was the first bit of light that maybe it can work, maybe there is a way out.
“It was a very long road from then, the light went out a few times and the hope would go.
“As I put more effort into getting better my eating disorder got stronger, it didn’t want to let go. In its way (the illness) had helped me get through so much as my coping strategy.
“For a long time the thought of living without it scared me, I would just be this fragile little girl again that everyone would target. It was like a form of protection.”
Through Seed and Breathe, and with the support of her family and friends, Victoria’s outlook started to transform.
“Of course my parents always believed in me but hearing it from Shelley made me think she was right and I could recover. And she was right.
Victoria now works as the digital marketing officer for Breathe, and is also a Seed volunteer.
She said: “It’s amazing (to work here), it’s like as much as I’ve been through, this is my work, it feels like I’m giving something back to the people that gave me my life back.
“I have so much gratitude for them, so much gratitude for my life now. As horrible as some of it has been, I wouldn’t have changed it because I wouldn’t have the people I have in my life now. Coming back to work has been really great.”
Victoria is about to embark on a trip to South Africa to further her education but will maintain her role with the charity.
She said: “I don’t have any of the thoughts or obsessions but if there is a trigger and something bad happens I have so many tools that I know how to use, so many people who understand that I can reach out to.
“My eating disorder will never be an option for me again. I always remember the worst moments it took me too and I won’t let myself go there again.”
Wellbeing and mental health helpline 0800 915 4640
@SEEDLancashire 0844 391 5539
www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk - Beat helpline 0808 801 0677
To donate to Lancashire based Seed you can text SEED03 and £(*) TO 70070