April 2, 2014

My experience of mental health services started 10 years ago, when I first started being treated under CAMHS services for depression and an eating disorder.  I also developed OCD and after two years under the care of community services, I spent a few months as an inpatient. I continued to be treated in the community after this, until being discharged at 18.

The experience I had whilst ill encourage me to start a career in mental health 

The care I received during this time was, for the most part, second to none. Particularly whilst as an inpatient, I felt valued and respected, and as though it was ok for me to be unwell but that it was possible to recover. This, along with the experiences I had whilst I was ill, encouraged me to base my career in mental health. I was inspired to be as caring as the people who had looked after me, and wanted to be able to support people – particularly young people – to recover. I started my career in mental health services in 2009, and began studying to train as a mental health nurse.

I found the attitudes of those working in services shocking

I initially didn’t hide my past involvement in services, as I had never felt that I needed to. However, I soon found the attitudes and prejudices of those working in services were different to anything I had ever experienced before. Although through school I dealt with a lot of stigma and discrimination, I had assumed that this was through a lack of knowledge rather than genuine prejudice. However, here I was, surrounding by professionals whose idea of how to talk about, and manage, eating disorders was shocking.

When I became unwell with anorexia again 4 years ago, I had never felt under so much pressure to be secretive. I didn’t want people to think of me ‘a spoilt rich girl’ or ‘an attention seeking middle class brat’, or that I needed to ‘grow up and eat some biscuits’, as I had heard eating disorder sufferers described by my colleagues. I didn’t want people to think that I wasn’t capable of doing my job, or to pay extra attention to me whenever they saw me eating.

The added pressure of having to hide my anorexia caused me to spiral

Eating disorders are already renowned for being secretive and deceptive, but the added pressure of having to hide my anorexia so intensely caused me to spiral, and I became completely obsessed about covering it up. I strongly believe that this contributed to me becoming more unwell, and stopped me from seeking help for months. When I eventually did, it was difficult to fit my appointments in around my shifts and I was too scared to ask for the time off, which lead to delays in my treatment.

There were times when I almost plucked up the courage to tell somebody, but then I’d hear another negative comment and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Occasionally people would ask questions but I often felt an air of criticism in this, and knowing how quickly gossip can spread, I kept quiet. Somebody else joined the team at one point who also had an eating disorder, but unlike mine, everybody knew about it. The comments I heard made about her behind my back disgusted me, and I became even more terrified to be honest having an insight into what people might say about me.

People still believe that eating disorders are a choice, that they aren't 'real'

Don’t get me wrong, the teams I have worked with over the years have mostly been dedicated and caring. There is a lot of understanding and empathy towards people suffering from psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders. But for some reason, unbeknown to me, eating disorders are just not seen in the same way. People still believe they are a choice, that they aren’t ‘real’, that they are a way of seeking attention. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I tried so hard to avoid attention that it ended up jeopardising my health even further.

I understand that by being stigmatising myself, I am encouraging others to do the same

Doing some work for Time to Change this year was the first thing in a long time that made me realise I didn’t need to be ashamed of my illness. I became brave enough to tell two of my colleagues, who I trusted and friends and respected as professionals. Although I still don’t feel ready to offer this information about myself freely, I know now that I wouldn’t lie if somebody asked me, and to me that is a huge step. I understand that by being stigmatising myself, I am encouraging others to do the same.

I have been discharged from services for 5 months now, and am looking forward to doing to some more work with Time to Change. I am going to university in September, and I sincerely hope that throughout my career, I see a change in people’s perspectives, and that I can play a small part in helping this happen.

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