Content warning: frequent mention of eating disorders/anorexia
Lily is adamant that whilst she never actively sought help from the university in regards to her eating disorder, the university could have, and should have, reached out, for a major aspect of the illness is rejecting help. “I was missing lectures, missing tutorials,” she recalls. “Missing deadlines. Physically, I was so obviously unwell – if my personal tutor, or any tutor, had commented on my appearance, I would have jumped at the opportunity to open up.”
Lily shows me a photo of her at her skinniest, and it is abundantly clear she was sick. She had been suffering from anorexia for years, but it had become particularly noticeable throughout a semester, and not once did she believe the university noticed, or even particularly cared.
“I study languages, so I’m in small tutorials literally almost every day. But the second I went to the doctors for a chest cough, they immediately had me weighed and examined. It was so obvious [that] I was so unwell.” She was confused why no one said anything. “I wondered how bad I had to be, how ill I had to be… until I could get better. So much of the mentality when you’re anorexic is like that – I felt like I didn’t deserve to seek help, because I just wasn’t sick enough, in my opinion.
“The scariest part is asking for help – but someone asking you is a lot less scary. I would never have said to the doctor ‘I’m not doing well,’ but the second the doctor asked, I immediately opened up. I think that’s really common.”
Even if she had tried to seek help from the university, she says, she would not have known where to look. “There are no posters in toilets, nothing really online.” When googled, ‘The University of Edinburgh eating disorders,’ leads you to a support groups page – in which you can “attend a support group in person, or register for an online forum.” Another university website link directs you to a self-help page that links a “free online course in mindfulness,” and under the ‘Eating issues’ tab there is a link to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity.
“It seems like an afterthought,” Lily says, laughing slightly. “We can’t help you, but these people can.”
An estimated 1.6 million people across the UK suffer from eating disorders, mainly (but not exclusively) those aged from 14 to 25. One in 100 women between the ages of 15 and 30 suffer from anorexia nervosa, which has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence. Of those surviving, only half recover fully, and 20 per cent remain chronically ill.
If the mortality rates with anorexia seem shocking, they aren’t to Lily. “People think anorexia is just some rich white girl problem, but it’s not.” More boys every year are being diagnosed with eating disorders, and the NHS estimates that up to 25 per cent of those showing signs of eating disorders are male.
Moreover, the high mortality rate can partly be attributed to suicide. Studies suggest that up to 40 per cent of deaths are the result of suicide. Perhaps even more unnerving is the statistic that up to 72 per cent of those suffering from an eating disorder engage in some form of self-harm.
So why do sufferers like Lily feel like the university is simply not doing enough? The University of Edinburgh has the third highest endowment in the UK, after Oxford and Cambridge, and despite recent investment into students’ mental health, waiting lists for the university counselling system are up to eight weeks long. That is almost an entire semester, and even then, counselling is only offered for a maximum of six weeks.
Clearly, in the case of eating disorders – already trivialised within media and wider society – it can be a matter of life and death. This is, quite obviously, not good enough.
Lily acknowledges her privilege in regards to treatment with her illness. “I’m fortunate enough to be able to seek private healthcare, I have a therapist I speak to weekly.” But with therapy sessions averaging at £100 a session, this is not an option for everyone. The average student loan for a semester, for example, is around the £2,000 mark, if a sufferer sought therapy outside the university, ten weeks of weekly one-hour sessions would account for half the student loan.
With therapy as an option, albeit an expensive one, I asked Lily what else she would advise on both seeking help and also mentally coming to a place to want to seek help.
“Firstly, no matter how long you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, or had problems with eating… even if you’re not diagnosed, you know yourself if its a problem – no matter how long you’ve been suffering, what weight you are, what diagnosis – or even lack thereof – you still deserve help. You’re entitled to help! Even things like YouTube videos, such as Tabitha Farrar, Kayla Rose Kotecki, and Follow the Intuition helped me so much.”
She then goes on to discuss the broad spectrum of eating disorders. “Doctors can often make people feel not validated when they’re suffering – like, if they’re perhaps larger, doctors will be reluctant to acknowledge they have an issue, that they have health problems caused by restriction and under eating.”
Surprisingly, a sufferer can only be diagnosed with anorexia if their body mass index is minimal, and Lily considers this a contributing factor in her eating disorder going unchecked for years.
In regards to recovery, the seriousness of the disorder is once again transparent. “Well, the eating disorder seeps into every aspect of your life…so during recovery, I started remembering things I forgot I enjoyed, like watching movies in bed, and that it was okay, and nothing bad would happen.”
Like with any addiction, Lily is still vulnerable to bad days and relapses, but she celebrates feeling like now she “can be spontaneous – I have my life back. Physically, I don’t feel so fatigued… I can relax again.”
At the time of writing, it was National Eating Disorder Week, and as one of the most affected groups in society, there needs to be more camaraderie, more support, and more discussion about eating disorders to help those who are suffering in silence. In Scotland alone, two people a day are admitted to hospital for anorexia and bulimia.
In essence, this is an epidemic that plagues our society. There has been a 66 per cent increase in those suffering from eating disorders in Scotland alone, and the underlying narrative that we continually hear is that there is a cloak of silence surrounding the decision to come forward.
Lily’s story is personal, brave, and a poignant glimmer of hope for those out there who might have needed Lily. The intention behind her story was to encourage others to come forward and start to heal as well.
Image: Wikimedia Commons