Ballymena woman, 23, opens up on turning to her GP for help after developing eating disorder

When Leah Blair was planning her wedding last year, she was faced with the added challenge of doing so with an eating disorder.

The 23-year-old from Ballymena developed issues with food around three years ago following a health and fitness diet after gaining weight at while university.

“I noticed that my relationship with food was changing and I had gone on a diet but I didn’t know how to stop or where the end was,” Leah told Belfast Live.

“I realized that my thoughts were completely preoccupied with food and it wasn’t normal anymore. I was very lucky before that and had no issues with food during all of my teenage years.”

Leah began manipulating her food intake and exercising excessively until her weight became dangerously low.

Soon afterwards, she was diagnosed with anorexia and had to be admitted to hospital for five weeks in April 2019.

Leah is speaking out to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week as a new survey finds that over two thirds of people with an eating disorder feel their GP did not understand how to help them with their illness.

According to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, those with lived experience of an eating disorder identified a wide range of experiences with healthcare professionals.

These included being told they were not ‘underweight enough’ to get treatment, feeling afraid that they wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that opportunities to detect their eating disorder were missed.

Those who had positive experiences with their GP emphasized how valuable it was to speak to a knowledgeable professional, and the crucial role GPs played in their recovery.

A further 67% of survey respondents felt that early opportunities to identify their eating disorder were missed, and 52% of people said they would have sought help sooner if they’d had greater confidence that healthcare professionals could support them.

Leah and her husband Andrew on their wedding day last September

Luckily for her, Leah had a positive experience, which emphasized just how crucial quality medical advice was for her recovery.

“I took the initiative and went to my doctor as I realized that something wasn’t right with having this fixation with food that had never been there before,” she said.

“My initial experience with my GP was good – he was a Junior Doctor and took me very seriously. I’m not sure if that was because he was a Junior Doctor and wanted to start out well but nonetheless, despite my weight not being ‘ unhealthy’ by the BMI standard (eg over or underweight), he took me seriously; monitored my weight; referred me to the services.

“The second time around, I didn’t actually go to the GP about my weight – a different doctor noticed it when I came about something else. Again he was very efficient, bringing me in regularly for bloods and checking my weight.

“He referred me to the MHS (Mental Health Service) and EDS (Eating Disorder Service). Both times my GP took me seriously and intervened.

Leah said quality medical advice was crucial for her recovery

“It has been going on for three and a half years and while I still have issues with food and am not fully recovered, I have a lot more of a grip on it and I’m able to keep a healthy and stable weight,” she added.

“I still struggled every day as it’s a mental rather than a physical illness.”

During Eating Disorders Awareness Week (28th February – 6th March), Beat is also campaigning for every medical school to provide comprehensive eating disorder training to give future GPs all the necessary knowledge and skills they need to help a patient presenting with an eating disorder.

Currently seven medical schools in the UK have implemented adequate training, including Glasgow, with a further seven in the process of doing so.

Beat’s National Officer for Northern Ireland, Nicola Armstrong, said: “Whilst doctors across Northern Ireland are very committed to providing the best care for their patients, many weren’t given enough training on eating disorders during their medical degree.

“Sadly, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on people with eating disorders, with increased isolation and anxiety being major factors, which has contributed to a higher number of people needing support.

“At Beat, our support services provided more than double the amount of support sessions to people in Northern Ireland between April 2020 and March 2021, in comparison to before the pandemic.

‘We are campaigning for every medical school and foundation program to implement quality training so that every future GP is given the tools they need to identify eating disorders quickly, discuss treatment options, and refer patients to professional support.

“Given that the sooner somebody accesses treatment, the better their chances of making a full recovery, it’s vital that this training is provided at the earliest opportunity.

“We will also be continuing to build bridges with policy makers in Northern Ireland, to help ensure that quality treatment is available for every person impacted by an eating disorder.”

The Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, said the findings from Beat’s survey are concerning.

“GPs in primary care are the gatekeepers to mental health services and it is vital that they are in a position to identify people who require treatment. I fully support Beat’s campaign to ensure that medical schools provide adequate training to future GPs on this issue.

“In addition, the Mental Health Strategy funding plan indicates that we need over £3.6 million over the next three years to improve the services and treatments for people with eating disorders.

“I am calling on our political parties to plug the gap in funding for mental health services, to provide the 34% increase in funding for mental health services overall, so that we can implement the strategy in full and ensure that people with eating disorders, and other mental health difficulties, get the treatments they need.”

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