Hope Virgo: Lockdown Fuelling Eating Disorders – Here’s How to Help

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During the pandemic, research has shown that 1 in 5 women now present with an eating disorder.

Hope Virgo is an Author and a multi award winning international leading advocate for people with eating disorders. In this profile interview for Make A Difference Media, Hope brings to life what it’s like to navigate the pandemic whilst suffering from an eating disorder.

She also shares valuable tips for anyone seeking to understand how to support colleagues, friends or relatives grappling with this mental illness which feeds off isolation and secrecy.

How is the pandemic impacting people living with and recovering from eating disorders? Do you think more people are developing eating disorders as a result of the pandemic?

Imagine walking into a shop, looking around at the empty shelves and seeing nothing there…The eating disorder is cheering you on: ‘Phew! A good excuse not to have anything.’ It’s telling you that your safe foods aren’t there, convincing you that you can’t have anything to eat now, at least until later this week when you will return to the shops.

Imagine sitting at your kitchen table, with your child who is in recovery. You serve up a meal. “I can’t have that; it’s got too much in it. I won’t have it – it isn’t on the meal plan.”

Imagine walking into a supermarket, people rushing around everywhere, grabbing things from the shelves. You get to a shelf where normally your safe foods are and you freeze. You stand there for what feels like an eternity, your eyes darting around, sweat dripping down your back, your palms clamming up. Where is the tin you normally get? What are you going to do? You know you have to keep eating but you aren’t sure if you can.

Imagine getting home from the shop having panicked and stockpiled. The food beckoning you in, asking you to eat it, convincing you to have more and more. ‘If you have this, it will make you feel okay,’ it tells you.

Imagine having an illness which even though it is dangerous and has the potential to kill you, at the same time gives you so much certainty, control and numbs emotions of Covid and isolation.

These scenarios are the reality for so many, both with diagnosed eating disorders, undiagnosed and people in recovery. Covid has created a perfect storm for people with eating disorders, from stockpiling, to increased focus on food, diet, exercise and the isolation. Over the last year we have seen a huge increase in people struggling. Recent statistics from the NHS are showing that a staggering fifth of women are now struggling with a disordered relationship with food, and these stats are just the tip of the iceberg.  An iceberg, of shame and guilt for both men and women who struggle to reach out and admit something is wrong.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to support colleagues and tackle some of the taboos around eating disorders?

What you don’t realise when you are living in a hospital with 24/7 care and support or in treatment for an eating disorder, is the reality of thriving and even surviving in the outside world. I thought I was equipped for the outside world but what I didn’t factor in was how to navigate a job. Who would have thought that being in recovery from a mental health problem could be so difficult when you are working full time?

The things that most others in their twenties wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at became things I was entranced by. From networking lunches to stressing if my exercise routine was affected. The biggest realisation for me was that I could still be really good at my job even if I chose not to eat certain foods. My anorexia didn’t make me weak but actually a stronger person for managing it and not letting it make me unwell.

No-one at work knew about me, but it didn’t make comments easier to hack. Sometimes harmless comments had a huge impact on me and my recovery. Here’s how to help those around you.

Avoid diet and calorie chat as this can be triggering for people with eating disorders (and probably annoying for everyone else).

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Don’t comment on people’s food choices. I eat regularly throughout the day because that is what works for my brain. When I worked in an office the amount of people who would comment ‘you are always eating’ or ‘why are you having a salad for lunch?’ It got so annoying. I felt the need to constantly make excuses for my food choices.

Think about where you do at team lunches. When I first started working in an office I had to learn to accept that team lunches would happen; but this didn’t make them any easier. Instead I felt left in the lurch a lot of the time. I would either pull out, turn up late or end up sitting there constantly stressing. What would have helped is having a choice of where to go or seeing a menu beforehand. Small changes really do make a huge difference.

Don’t quiz someone if they choose not to eat cake. It needlessly draws attention to their choice, which can add to an already uncomfortable situation.

Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes but just because someone looks OK doesn’t mean they are OK. For a lot of my working life, particularly when I started and then again when I relapsed in 2016, I looked 100% healthy. But this didn’t mean that I wasn’t struggling to function.

Get behind awareness days as an initial starting point to getting the conversation going, but make sure you find ways to keep the momentum going through your internal communications and leadership teams. It is about having a cultural shift so that everyone feels able to talk about how they feel, so that people don’t feel judged if they are having a bad day, and realising that we don’t have to constantly wear a mask to work.

How can employers help colleagues who are concerned that a child or loved-one may be developing an eating disorder?

Organisations need to make sure there is proper support in place for families, so often the carers get left out; this doesn’t just mean parents but also partners, siblings. During the pandemic there have been some really tough moments for my partner in helping me and it has been a blessing he is here on those hard days (for me!) But there should be some flexibility when people return to work to be aware that last minute work from home days because a loved one might be struggling are the norm.

Make space to check in with each other and keep educating! So often eating disorders are forgotten and side-lined but it is key that we bring these conversations forward and give people space to speak up

After my book came out a lot of people came up to me after work and said ‘you can’t have a mental illness you are always so happy’. This attitude needs to change and it is far too easy to hide our true feelings. As individuals we need to feel comfortable taking our masks off and showing the real us at work. We all have a part to play in this so I challenge you to change this by talking about how you feel.

We must never feel ashamed of our mental illnesses or those in our families who may be struggling. It doesn’t make us weak

What are your top tips for staying mentally well through the pandemic and beyond?

  • Physical activity: getting out and about for a walk or a jog is really important. But also being aware of the reasons for doing this! Am I doing it to punish myself or for the headspace?
  • Routine (and right now this includes getting dressed each day!)
  • Daily devotionals and self-care
  • Be honest with myself and those around me: eating disorders really do thrive off isolation and secrecy and so being honest with others is key!

Useful contacts

Hope suggests that the following organisations offer specialised guidance, support and information for people who are living with an eating disorder, as well as those who want to help them:

First Steps ED: https://firststepsed.co.uk/

Hub of Hope: https://hubofhope.co.uk/page/help-with-eating-disorders

About Hope Virgo

Hope Virgo is an Author and a multi award winning international leading advocate for people with eating disorders. Hope helps young people and employers (including schools, hospitals and businesses) to deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. She has been described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital, as “sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact”. Hope is also a recognised media spokesperson, having appeared on various platforms including BBC Newsnight, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.
For four years, Hope managed to keep it hidden, keeping dark secrets from friends and family. But then, on 17th November 2007, Hope’s world changed forever. She was admitted to a mental health hospital. Her skin was yellowing, her heart was failing. She was barely recognizable. Forced to leave her family and friends, the hospital became her home. Over the next year, at her lowest ebb, Hope faced the biggest challenge of her life. She had to find the courage to beat her anorexia.
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