Mental Health Awareness Day: Don’t tell them to “just eat”
The Self Care Coach
Mental health is a taboo subject. It’s brushed under the carpet, hidden from view and whispered about in hushed tones. You might imagine a crazed person in a straight jacket or someone covering their bedroom with silver foil.
The reality is often quieter and more subtle.
Depression, self harming, eating disorders, schizophrenia – our brains are complex, complicated places. Scientists have spent years discussing nature vs nature, looking at patterns and reasons, and the sad fact remains that 1 in 4 people will suffer a mental health disorder in their lifetime.
I salute every survivor of mental health disorders who talk about their experience. It’s a difficult thing to try and explain the workings of your mind to someone who has never experienced the world in the way you see it.
As a proud spokesperson for BEAT, the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity, I understand the importance of survivors sharing their story, inspiring others to speak up and out and encouraging people to get intervention as early as possible.
Caring for your mental health is part of your overall health
Photograph by Arkady Lifshits via Unsplash
I remember vividly being in the school hall at lunchtime. Each lunch I felt a cold sweat come over me whilst I tried to formulate an excuse to leave early in my head. Invariably a well-meaning friend would say to me “why don’t you just eat?”. Those 5 words seem so innocent and helpful, but they made me want to scream and cry – because I couldn’t explain the answer to them and I didn’t know why.
And this is the trick that mental health plays on those that suffer with it. Something so simple and easy for some people just isn’t for others. The assumption is that those with eating disorders are selfish, vain and obsessed with food and the way they look, and frankly just need to snap out of it. Isn’t it just a diet gone wrong?
In short, no. It’s a mental health illness that stems from a lack of self-respect, a lack of self-love and a desire for control in a world that feels very much out of control. People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists and fear failure and rejection, the quest for “perfection” in being thin and controlling their body, is an attempt to be accepted, loved and hide their imperfections.
My recovery was just as confusing and complex as the illness had been. I had to learn to eat again, what a portion was, what hunger felt like and how to satisfy it without bingeing. I had to learn how to eat in front of people and not feel like the whole world was watching me and judging me. I had to learn to cook and combine foods and find a way to make friends with food I had avoided or abused for most of my adult life. I had to accept that my periods would come back and that I wouldn’t be “ill” anymore when for more than a decade that’s how I defined myself.
I had to learn to do something that most people take for granted and have done without thinking since they were born. But I had to learn to feed and nourish myself with my thoughts, my behaviour, my actions before I even got to feeding myself with food.
Years later I am still recovering my sense of taste and smell. I still struggle when my friends make a fuss on my behalf if we go to a restaurant and if there aren’t Vegan options … it’s too much focus, too much attention and I feel too exposed.
I have flashes of the disorder that held me for so many years, but I have the tools now to manage it differently. I have distance and perspective and crucially, I have a lot more self-love and self-respect.
Laughter and smiles after a long journey
Photograph by Lucy Williams via My Heart Skipped
So instead of asking them to “just eat” or telling them to just “snap out of it” I wanted to share some ideas on how you might approach someone you love seek help.
Encourage them to get help early
Statistics show that those that seek support early, recover quicker and with fewer complications. The word encourage is different from “force”. Anyone with a mental health issue is suffering and they’re scared. They’ve sought comfort and security in a behaviour or pattern and letting that go will mean facing something bigger and scarier than the disorder.
Tread gently, with compassion and without judgement or blame.
Focus on feelings not food
It’s so easy to forget this point but it’s critical. When you approach someone with any kind of mental health and try and talk to them about it, they are more than likely going to be defensive. This is natural and normal. They’re defending their behaviour as they’re scared of the alternative, they probably won’t even realise that what they’re doing is dangerous or disordered.
Even simple comments like “you look good” can be misinterpreted and create a barrier. Remember that the disorder is about feelings and emotions and not food.
Talk about things like energy, health and praise them if you see them doing well.
If you can’t talk, write
When I spoke at BeFit a woman in the audience shared a beautiful story about how her friend had been ill for some time and she wouldn’t talk to anyone. They tried to approach her and couldn’t and so decided they would write her a letter and share their concerns and express their love and how much they wanted to support her. The friend read it some weeks later and it opened the door to a conversation.
Gentle loving approaches can come in different forms.
Don’t tell them to “just eat”
I know as someone that hasn’t experienced an eating disorder it’s confusing, overwhelming and frustrating. You could only understand the illness if you’ve been through it yourself. Even now when I share my story and talk to people about how the illness affects decision-making I see the confusion.
That’s good, it means you’ll never have to suffer what we have. Likewise, the fact they’re suffering in a way you can’t understand you’re operating in a way that they can’t understand.
Be open, gentle and supportive and you can find some more useful tips from BEAT here.
The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day (WMHD) on 10 October every year as an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health #WMHD16.
I share my story in the hope that it will help as many people as possible, but even if just one person reads this and finds comfort, support, answers, a light – whatever it is – I’ve done my job.
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