‘Medical schools are treating eating disorders as a niche subject': raising awareness this EDA Week

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By Lauren Sanderson, Second Year English and Philosophy

Trigger Warning: disordered eating, mental illness and death.

28 February marked the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2022, a national event dedicated to shining a light upon the detrimental impact of eating disorders - life-threatening and under-researched illnesses that come at a high personal cost for both those suffering and their families.

With incident rates for eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating most prominent amongst females in their late teens and early twenties, a considerate proportion of the UK university student population is often affected. The stresses of day-to-day student life are common to us all, but the pressures of independent living can be a significant trigger for those with pre-existing disordered eating. Bristol-based non-profit Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) has warned that eating disorders are frequently triggered or worsened by periods of change and the move away from familiar support networks:

'For many, it is the first time they have had the responsibility of cooking and food shopping for themselves, and they just don't know what to do. Add to this the insecurities of being around groups of new people and excessive alcohol use and we often see eating disorders and depression occurring.’

Despite the devastating and widespread impact of eating disorders, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders; recent investigations have brought attention to a neglect of their diagnosis and treatment in the NHS and across wider treatment services.

This year BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder’s charity, has launched the Worth More Than 2 Hours campaign, pushing for UK medical schools to implement comprehensive training on eating disorders during undergraduate study. The charity has warned that insufficient training is putting patient lives’ at risk, and are calling on the General Medical Council to review training of eating disorders for junior doctors.

An insufficient medical understanding of eating disorders can lead to delayed access to treatment and misdiagnosis; in the past decade, this type of mistreatment has tragically resulted in numerous avoidable deaths. In 2017, a Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) inquiry was launched, investigating failures of the NHS to prevent the death of nineteen-year-old student Averil Hart. The report concluded that a major contributing factor was a lack of training. Yet the committee has recently stated that in the following years little action has been taken to implement their recommendations across the NHS.

'Medical schools are treating eating disorders as a niche subject, despite the fact that they affect 1.25 million people in the UK.'

In the wake of the inquiry, the UK’s first comprehensive research analysis into the extent of training on eating disorders reported that the average GP receives less than two hours of training on this subject in their entire medical degree. A fifth of UK medical schools do not provide any training on eating disorders at all. The research also highlighted that most doctors are never assessed on their knowledge of eating disorders, and only one per cent of doctors are given the opportunity for clinical experience on eating disorders.

Lead author of the study, Dr Agnes Ayton, said: ‘Medical schools are treating eating disorders as a niche subject, despite the fact that they affect 1.25 million people in the UK and cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds. Improved training would save lives at a minimal cost to the NHS.’

Speaking to the BBC regarding the avoidable deaths of five women, two of whom were university students, coroner Sean Horstead described the system by which eating disorder patients are cared for as ‘a lucky dip’. Affirming the conclusions of both the PHSO inquiry and Dr Ayton’s research, he said the successful treatment of eating disorders was often ‘reliant on the goodwill of GPs.’

One University of Bristol student, now in recovery from anorexia, told Epigram how doctors’ limited knowledge of eating disorders can be the difference between recovery and serious physical and mental deterioration.

Speaking of her experience seeking out help, she said, ‘When my family took me to see our GP out of concern for my restrictive eating and declining physical health, the doctor told them to allow me to maintain my dangerous eating and exercise habits. She told us that taking control away from me would just worsen my mental health.’

‘This turned out to be advice that could have risked my life. It was only when I was later referred to specialist eating disorder treatment by a different GP that I was given the help I needed to begin recovery.’

With 58 per cent of eating disorder patients reporting that they felt their GP didn’t understand their disorder, her experience seems to be common.

If you’re looking for an event to occupy your time this reading week, Beat This Together (BTT), a University of Bristol society dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders, weight stigma and body shaming, are hosting a lineup of events across Eating Disorders Awareness Week to support BEAT’s campaign. The week will see a host of educational webinars, arts events, bake sales and even a self-love yoga class in the name of raising money for the charity. They encourage not only survivors and those impacted by eating disorders to get involved, but anyone interested in supporting a good cause.

No matter your age or gender, all demographics are impacted by eating disorders. They are complex and serious but also treatable illnesses, and help is available in Bristol if you are struggling.

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The Students’ Health Service encourages students to get in touch for support and advice if you feel you have been impacted by disordered eating, even if you don’t yet know whether you’re ready to get help.

Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) can provide on-going care, emotional support, and practical guidance for anyone affected. Their services include a national helpline, a telephone befriending service, and online support groups. Take a look at the Bristol Mind website for more resources.

Featured Image: Epigram / Tom Taylor


How will you be raising awareness this EDA Week?

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