Mental Health + Eating Disorders


Having an eating disorder is a serious mental illness and it is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK alone are suffering. Rosie Coxshaw meets Nichola Swallow, an ambassador from the charity BEAT to learn about her road to recovery

 “The diet industry is such as scam. I mean what other product can you buy that when it fails you blame yourself and then you go and buy it again”

There are many forms an eating disorder can take. In the first instance, how would define what an eating disorder is?

A lot of people may identify an eating disorder by its physical characteristics in terms of weight, but for me those are symptoms of something that is going on internally. It’s a mental illness and can affect every part of your life.

Can you describe how the illness pervades your life?

I call it a tiger. The tiger is with me all the time, like a pet, and when I was suffering we were constantly fighting. The tiger was overpowering both me and my thoughts. The feeling was really painful. I had low self-esteem, low self-worth and felt un-loveable. Mentally you believe those things to be true.

How far then do those feelings of low self-esteem make the disorder self-perpetuating?

It’s a vicious cycle. When you’re in that frame of mind and you let those voices tell you unhelpful things, it triggers a lot of anxiety and that can trigger the disordered eating behaviours. Demonstrating such behaviours drives the self-loathing. The key is to keep on top of those thoughts and ensure you’re in a positive mindset consistently.

How and when did you realise you were suffering?

I have been suffering with an eating disorder for about 17 years, I’m now 33 but I wasn’t diagnosed with a binge eating disorder until 2015. The first time I went to the GP in 2009, my weight was fluctuating violently they were very dismissive and offered me discounted gym membership. I then went back to the GP in 2015 to find out what was wrong with me and why I felt so sad. My GP then referred me to the specialist eating disorder clinic to get treatment.

Do you feel that societal pressure to diet plays a role?

Absolutely, when I was in the middle of it and my BMI was fluctuating massively, I was trying diet after diet. The diet industry is such as scam. I mean what other product can you buy that when it fails you blame yourself and then you go and buy it again. It’s really unhelpful.

Do you think that, ultimately, having an eating disorder stems from the same mentality as someone abusing drugs or alcohol?

Yes. When I saw my GP in 2015, she said to me, the way you’re talking about your problem is the same way that an alcoholic or drug abuser would speak about their addiction. With a recovered alcoholic, they wouldn’t go and have one pint they would stay away from it eternally. In the same way I am recovered but it will always be with me.

But the problem with food is that we need the food to live…

Food isn’t the problem, there is no such thing as good and bad food. It did take me a long time to come around to this way of thinking, but the problem is behaviour and disordered thinking not the food.

How has BEAT helped you?

I followed BEAT on social media and the great articles they shared were really helpful, I’ve also attended their group therapy sessions which helped massively, I then applied to become an ambassador. I felt so lucky to have access to the treatment.

How does BEAT raise funds and what do they go towards?

People support the charity in multiple ways, through events, sporting activities. The charity also partners with various businesses and the government to fund the work it carries out. Funds go towards a dedicated call centre, online function to speak in an anonymous way and running campaigns lobbying government policy to encourage access to treatment.

Tell us about recovery…

It feels really peaceful. I didn’t realise that there was so much noise in my head until it quietened down, now I feel in control, balanced and liberated. I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to seek help and get the treatment for anyone who is suffering with an eating disorder.

Tips and Tools

Beat is the UK’s eating disorder charity. We are a champion, guide and friend to anyone affected by eating disorders, empowering sufferers and their families, increasing understanding of these serious mental illnesses, and campaigning for earlier and better access to treatment.

Anyone worried about their own or someone else’s health can contact BEAT’s Helpline, 365 days a year, via phone, email, anonymous one-to-one webchat or social media messaging.
HELPLINE: 0808 801 0677

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