It can be an obsession with weight or body shape that offers the illusion of control at a crippling cost.
And charity bosses have issued a call to action for people to raise awareness of eating disorders and the need to spot the signs early.
Beat, the national charity, has warned that a “worrying” number of people are still unable to name any of the signs or symptoms of eating disorders, citing new research published today by YouGov.
Coinciding with the launch of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it reveals that one third of adults cannot identify even one symptom of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
For Sally Jones*, who struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, spotting those signs, getting an early diagnosis and treatment make all the difference.
The Leeds student, 20, grappled with mental health issues and anorexia, an eating disorder where people try to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough food or exercising too much.
Now healthy and studying at university, she is today bravely sharing the story of her journey to recovery to help raise awareness as part of the YEP’s #SpeakYourMind campaign, which aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
“At 16 I was doing my A-levels, struggling with my mental health and I decided that I needed to lose a bit of weight,” she said. “I started skipping lunch when I was at school and in the mornings at home I would make my porridge with water instead of milk - when my parents weren’t looking.
“It went on for about five months and I was quite lucky in that respect, that it was caught early.”
After losing a stone in weight, she was eventually referred to mental health services and diagnosed with anorexia.
But she said that while doctors – and even school teachers – recognised she needed help, her parents failed to spot the signs.
“The school raised concerns to my parents at the time about my weight but they said, ‘no, she is just naturally slim’,” Sally said. “They eventually decided to search my room, and they found diet pills and that’s when they asked me about it.”
Sally is now thriving at university and happy with her weight. She is keen to encourage others to step in if they suspect someone has an eating disorder and is suffering in silence.
“You should talk to them directly, and express your concerns – because the sooner you get help the better,” Sally said.
“It can last too long if the behaviour and thoughts get too ingrained. I was lucky. I got help early and made a recovery.
“In terms of my eating disorder, I’m able to catch things early now and I am a really good weight and really happy with my body.
“It’s just about being aware of the signs. My way of hiding it was wearing baggy clothes.”
Dr William Rhys Jones, Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Lead at the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders in Leeds, part of Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said early intervention and community treatment are key.
“A key issue here is the importance of community-based early intervention and promoting early change as this can change lives and avoid the need for lengthy hospital admissions,” he said.
“Whilst inpatient admissions are on the rise and inpatient treatment is an important and necessary treatment option for some individuals, it is important to recognise that many inpatient admissions could potentially be avoided if there was increased access to specialist community eating disorders services and early intervention.”
Beat is calling on the NHS and the Government to help raise awareness of eating disorders nationally after publishing its research today. The research also found that nearly 20 per cent of people surveyed ‘did not know’ any signs or symptoms.
Of those who gave a correct symptom answer, they were twice as likely to list weight loss or being thin as a sign over any other – despite many people affected remaining at a normal weight, or even gaining weight.
Andrew Radford, Beat chief executive, 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.”
Eating disorders – which include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder – affect around 1.25 million people in the UK. Mr Radford said the lack of awareness on the early signs is causing a delay in treatment – and an increased risk of the illness getting worse.
He 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.”
‘No one single cause’
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
In its guidance, Beat says that they are complex and there is no one single cause or reason why someone develops an eating disorder.
The charity estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK of all ages, genders, and backgrounds have an eating disorder.
They can be fatal, and anorexia has a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness.
Although serious, eating disorders are treatable conditions and full recovery is possible.
The sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery.
The YEP’s #SpeakYourMind campaign was launched in 2016 to raise awareness of all mental health issues in Leeds and combat the damaging social stigma surrounding them.
In October, we launched a renewed focus for the campaign, calling on people across the city to help make Leeds mentally healthy. Visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk for information, message boards and online support groups about eating disorders.
Beat also operates helplines for adults on 0808 801 0677 and young people on 0808 801 0711.