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Lockdown eating disorders: ‘We need to push for absolute change - our approach isn’t working’

Rosie Fitzmaurice
·6-min read
 (Nigel Howard/Evening Standard)
(Nigel Howard/Evening Standard)

It’s estimated that someone with an eating disorder dies every 62 minutes.

Just over a week after the tragic news that former Big Brother star Nikki Grahame had died aged 38 after a long battle with anorexia, Sushila Phillips, daughter of Trevor Phillips, also passed away, after a 22-year battle with the disease.

Sushila Phillips, who worked as a freelance journalist and graduated with a first class honours degree from York University, died peacefully in her mother’s arms aged 36 on Sunday morning, her sister Holiday confirmed in a Facebook post.

Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the commission for racial inequality, spoke candidly in The Times last month about his daughter’s battle with anorexia, when discussing the mental health struggles that Meghan Markle raised in her interview with Oprah Winfrey. Markle revealed that she had felt suicidal during her darkest moments, saying ‘I didn’t want to be alive anymore.’

Phillips wrote: “And though I have thankfully never sunk to the despair described by the duchess, our family has spent more than two decades watching helplessly as my older daughter battled a severe eating disorder.”

“Hours before writing these words she and I bade farewell on a familiar threshold: the specialist unit to which she admits herself periodically when the daily struggle against her demons proves just too exhausting.”

He added he knew “what it feels like to have to pin your teenage child to the floor of a speeding car to prevent her throwing herself out of the door. I understand what it is to hear that she may not live long enough to go to university. I have met the girls with whom she shared the hellish wards reserved for the most distressed, and learnt not to look away when she tells me that I’ll never see one of them again because she has taken her own life.”

Many have vocalised concerns for those suffering with eating disorders behind closed doors amid the pandemic and new statistics quantify them.

“There has been an incremental rise in people suffering with eating disorders in lockdown,” says Renee McGregor, a sports dietitian and eating disorder specialist, who runs her own private clinic. She points to recent findings from a report into body image ordered by the House of Commons and published in April that shows in the last year alone, hospital admissions for eating disorders have seen a fourfold increase. Of people needing hospital treatment, approximately 70 per cent are adults, and results show a significant increase in ethnic minorities and males with eating disorders. Half will make a full recovery, 20 per cent remain chronically unwell and 30 per cent go on to make a partial recovery.

Meanwhile, Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, says the UK’s eating disorder charity helpline has seen a steady increase in demand during the coronavirus pandemic, “and hit an all-time record in March 2021, with a 302 per cent increase in demand compared to February 2020.

“We’ve heard from those using our services about the serious harm the pandemic has caused, preventing people from being with their vital support networks or keeping to the routines that allow them to manage their eating disorder. Many people have mentioned developing symptoms for the first time or finding themselves slipping back into old thoughts and behaviours,” he continued.

Lockdown, has enabled eating disorders to thrive “to a certain degree,” McGregor adds. “Isolation, for any human being, is when negative thoughts are most dominant and if you’re already struggling with a negative narrative, then you’re just going to hear it louder and louder.

“Normally, if you have an eating disorder there would be some day-to-day challenges to your routine, eating out with family for example, but in this period of time when you’re on your own, with no social events, it enables these disorders to continue.”

There’s a two-year waiting list for many adult eating disorder clinics at the moment

Renee McGregor

Grahame and Phillips are high-profile tragic examples of people overcome by this debilitating disease “but there are many many others that we won’t hear about,” she adds. “Services were already at capacity, there was just no where for some people to go - there’s a two-year waiting list for many adult eating disorder clinics at the moment.”

Proving how challenging it can be to access and afford the right help, before she died, Grahame’s friends had set up a fundraising page, and had raised more than £65,500 for private treatment in a bid to save her life.

Nikki GrahamePA Archive
Nikki GrahamePA Archive

They wrote: “Over the past years Nikki’s family and friends have tried so desperately to get Nikki all the help possible through the NHS but unfortunately the treatments have failed and we have exhausted every avenue possible, and now Nik is unfortunately in a very bad way, this is now our last hope.”

In an interview with The Telegraph in March before her death, Grahame’s mother Sue said: “This last year has just about floored her… From the first lockdown, it was hellish. She struggled because she couldn’t go to the gym.

“Then in December she fell down and cracked her pelvis in two places and broke her wrist. I stayed with her for three or four weeks because she couldn’t do anything.”

She continued: “We’ve been on this road a long time, 30 years on and off, and I’ve never seen her this bad. I’m frightened that I’ll die and she’ll have no one to support her. I don’t want her to go through any of this alone.”

McGregor has joined a steering group along with a group of psychiatrists, researchers, charity representatives and mental health activist Hope Virgo, who is behind the #DumpTheScales campaign, in a bid to make change happen.

“The reason we get these chronic cases is because there’s not enough early intervention, while it has been stated again and again that it is the way forward, I can tell you it isn’t happening because I see it in clinic every day, people are being turned away because they’re not low enough in weight (or their BMI isn’t low enough).”

She believes that one of the main problems is that eating disorders are deeply misunderstood. The issues, she says, are “not about food and exercise,” but how you feel about yourself and your self-esteem. “We’re constantly battling diet culture, diet culture will hold someone in an eating disorder but it is rarely causing it. An eating disorder is a coping mechanism and if you try to take that way that creates fear.”

As echoed in Phillips’ heart-wrenching words about his daughter’s struggles, an eating disorder is a form of mental illness.

Better training for GPs, in dealing with eating disordered patients would be a start. McGregor would like to see a more holistic approach to treating eating disorders that includes more physical assessment procedures, such as blood testing to analyse hormone levels, as well as psychological and psychiatric services. “The physical symptoms are often overlooked as a side effect of the psychiatric disorder but in many cases, when the body gives up, this ultimately leads to death.”

“There isn’t enough of a joined up approach, we need to push for absolute change in practice because it’s not working.”

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk

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