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Mental Health Awareness: Anorexia - Still Misunderstood?

09/06/2013 22:08 BST | Updated 09/08/2013 10:12 BST

Last month we witnessed Mental Health Awareness Week - a week dedicated to mental health campaigning. Like many of you, I followed all the campaigns almost religiously. However, now that it's all blown over - are things any different?

It is taking a long time, but mental health is gradually on its way to becoming less of a 'taboo topic'. This is due to the amount of effort put in by campaigners and activists. Last month it was a delight to see news reports on mental health issues, and my Twitter feed was flooded with blog posts and articles. It was fantastic seeing stigmas broke down by this new social movement. But the hard work isn't over yet.

One mental health issue facing misrepresentation and discrimination is anorexia nervosa. When portrayed in the media, anorexia sufferers are often depicted as obsessive teenage girls who made the choice themselves to stop eating, or celebrities driven to starvation through their strive for perfection. The reality is far more complex, yet the same media image continues to appear - day after day.

Myth busting

I made the mistake this week of typing in the search-term "anorexia" into an online Q&A discussion site. This particular site was based on the concept of females asking males questions, and vice versa.

Sufferers of anorexia were asking the community what they thought about the illness. Common responses? "Men like meat - not bones!", "Why do you intentionally starve yourself?", "Why do girls feel like they have to be perfect?", "Why don't you just eat?"

In about five minutes, my blood was boiling to the brim and I closed the tab. It's 2013. Why is there still a common belief that anorexia is intentional? Why do people still think that it's a choice or a decision that can be solved by choosing to eat? If it was that simple, experts wouldn't dedicate years to research, people wouldn't be dying, and sufferers would be cured by a couple of words and a pat on the back.

It is an issue close to heart, having suffered the mental torment myself. A couple of months ago, I discharged myself from a mental health ward. In hospital, I didn't have the option to starve myself, so I "just ate". But did the anorexia go away? Do I feel cured? No. It isn't a "phase", isn't a simple "hiccup", or a seasonal cold. And it is definitely not a choice.

I see the disease as a thief, robbing people of their lives - metaphysical and physical. People don't ask to be robbed.

If anorexia was a choice, like many sufferers, I would have chosen against it. I would have chosen friends, college and freedom over social isolation, growth over a weak body, and living life over facing death.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate out of all mental illnesses. Various studies have been conducted, and most statistics show that between five and 20% of sufferers die.

The most agonizing part of recovery is weight restoration. At this point, many sufferers are unable to cope with their feelings around reaching a healthy weight, and some even try to take their own lives.

This leads to another misconception - the misconception that people have to be severely underweight to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Anorexia is a mental illness which is experienced, on a personal level, through intrusive thoughts and obsessive cognitions.

Personally, my mental state was at its worse at the beginning, when my BMI was in the normal range and my mind was in agony, engulfed by possessive thoughts. It felt like the GP shook everything off as a phase, and this pushed me to further restriction, and eventually physical damage.

This is why there needs to be more early intervention, and experts need to keep a look out for not just the physical symptoms, but the painful psychological ones too.

Where do we go from here?

It's about time that we stop discriminating against an illness just because it is an illness of the mind. We're currently moving forward on all forms of discrimination - women rights, racial issues, LGBT and physical disabilities. Society needs to continuing progressing; so we should add "mental illness" on to that list as well.

One thing I would like to see (and I hope you all agree) is more politicians supporting our campaigns.

Parliament ran a debate in the House of Commons on the 16 May (watch the whole debate here). It was interesting hearing some of our elected MPs speak up once again (and with great passion, both sides of the chamber). However, next time it's debated - I hope the rest of our elected officials make the effort to attend.

Mental Health Awareness week has passed, but don't let this extinguish our "campaign flame". Keep it alight, and join the plight to fight mental health discrimination.