I was eating strawberry laces recently when someone said to me, ‘I thought you had an eating disorder?’ I just stared back trying to work out how to respond to such an odd question. If I had been mentally prepared for this question, I would have explained that an eating disorder is not about what you eat, but about your eating habits. Someone with anorexia, for example, would eat too little whereas someone suffering from bulimia will forcefully throw up their food. None of these disorders tell you what you can and cannot eat. Of course, many people with these illnesses feel that they can’t eat certain foods. But the point is that eating a slice of cake or a burger, or strawberry laces, does not magically remove your disorder.

What if those strawberry laces were the only food I ate that day? Would that be considered disordered eating?


Indulging a dangerous misunderstanding

Perceptions of mental illnesses, not only eating disorders, are often inaccurate. Increasingly, mental illnesses are being glamourised in the media, creating a false facade. Simultaneously, the lack of education assists the perpetuation of these inaccurate stigmas surrounding mental health, as well as increasing the number of sufferers.

The bitter reality of mental health disorders is the polar opposite of ‘glamorous’. The illusion of perfection or self-control, that has it’s own aesthetic appeal, often obfuscates the detrimental and dangerous side of mental illness.

With the second lockdown over in name only, many people will be affected by poor mental health. Now more than ever, acknowledging there is a problem and reaching out for help can be the best thing you do for yourself.  Before I continue, here are some useful links for anyone suffering during these difficult times.

Please reach out:

Anxiety UK

Charity providing support if you have been diagnosed with an anxiety condition.

Phone: 03444 775 774 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm)

Website: www.anxietyuk.org.uk

Bipolar UK

A charity helping people living with manic depression or bipolar disorder.

Website: www.bipolaruk.org.uk

CALM

CALM is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15 to 35.

Phone: 0800 58 58 58 (daily, 5pm to midnight)

Website: www.thecalmzone.net

Men’s Health Forum

24/7 stress support for men by text, chat and email.

Website: www.menshealthforum.org.uk

Mental Health Foundation

Provides information and support for anyone with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

Website: www.mentalhealth.org.uk

Mind

Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.

Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm)

Website: www.mind.org.uk

No Panic

Voluntary charity offering support for sufferers of panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Offers a course to help overcome your phobia or OCD.

Phone: 0844 967 4848 (daily, 10am to 10pm). Calls cost 5p per minute plus your phone provider’s Access Charge

Website: www.nopanic.org.uk

OCD Action

Support for people with OCD. Includes information on treatment and online resources.

Phone: 0845 390 6232 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm). Calls cost 5p per minute plus your phone provider’s Access Charge

Website: www.ocdaction.org.uk

OCD UK

A charity run by people with OCD, for people with OCD. Includes facts, news and treatments.

Phone: 0333 212 7890 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm)

Website: www.ocduk.org

PAPYRUS

Young suicide prevention society.

Phone: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141 (Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm and 7pm to 10pm, and 2pm to 5pm on weekends)

Website: www.papyrus-uk.org

Rethink Mental Illness

Support and advice for people living with mental illness.

Phone: 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm)

Website: www.rethink.org

Samaritans

Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.

Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)

Website: www.samaritans.org.uk

SANE

Emotional support, information and guidance for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers.

Textcare: comfort and care via text message, sent when the person needs it most: www.sane.org.uk/textcare

Peer support forum: www.sane.org.uk/supportforum

Website: www.sane.org.uk/support

YoungMinds

Information on child and adolescent mental health. Services for parents and professionals.

Phone: Parents’ helpline 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm)

Website: www.youngminds.org.uk

Eating disorders

Beat

Phone: 0808 801 0677 (adults) or 0808 801 0711 (for under-18s)

Website: www.b-eat.co.uk

Romanticising the traumatic

Depression is perhaps the most unfairly perceived mental illness because it is constantly romanticised. In the UK, 3 out of 100 people suffer from depression but overall only 1 in 8 adults with a mental health problem will seek treatment. This proves, already, how difficult it can be living with the illness. Often, people who witness their friends or family members suffering yet not seeking help, feel angry at them. But it’s so important to acknowledge how harrowing it can be for someone suffering to actually seek medical help. So think about that before you dispense blame or judgement.

The word ‘depression’ is also unhelpfully thrown into everyday conversations revolving around inconvenient situations. Hearing a mentally healthy person say, ‘It’s making me depressed’ can be annoying for someone struggling with real rather than metaphorical symptoms of depression. The reality of depression does not just consist in feeling ‘down’ or ‘sad’, as some people think. Its less obvious symptoms include feeling isolated even when you’re surrounded by many people; feeling helpless and losing the will to look after yourself; and feeling incapable of doing anything. Many people also experience physical symptoms, such as a complete lack of energy, disturbed sleep, disrupted menstrual cycle for women, loss of appetite and more. Clearly, depression is not a simple illness that can be defined by a certain aesthetic stereotype of a beautiful but lonesome woman, wistfully looking out of a cafe window as she sips on her café au lait.

Anxiety is another poorly understood mental illness. Reportedly, the rate of those feeling anxious has worsened since the first lockdown. Undoubtedly, many people have found it hard to deal with anxiety during what feels like an endless series of lockdowns and restrictions. Why so? Well, those with anxiety often find comfort in having the same routine everyday, whereas a sudden change to one’s normal schedule can be disorientating and so increase an individual’s symptoms of anxiety.

Just like depression, anxiety is constantly romanticised despite its gnawing effects. Anxiety is not just being ‘shy’ or ‘nervous’. It is a disorder involving excessive symptoms of worry, fear and apprehension which often have physical manifestations. The physical aspect of anxiety can include headaches, dizziness, sweating, heart palpitations and much more. People suffering from anxiety often find it hard to do things, simple things, that seem normal and easy to someone not affected. Anxiety is not about ‘laziness’, it’s about an inability to cope with life’s everyday demands. And, needless to say, there is nothing romantic or desirable in having anxiety rule you.

There are so many mental illnesses I have not mentioned. But this does not seek to invalidate their importance. Each illness is destructive in its own way — and should never be made subject to an aesthetic composition on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube.

Depression isn’t just about being sad and staring at the sky wide-eyed. Anxiety isn’t just an awkward but sexy nervousness. An eating disorder isn’t simply abut eating or not eating. Likewise, OCD is not just about being a neat-freak. Bipolar is more than those mood swings. Dissociation isn’t just spacing out. PTSD’s flashbacks just scratch the surface. And Schizophrenia’s hallucinations are nothing to make a film about.

Don’t encourage or advocate these convenient stigmas. Instead, check up on your friends and loved ones and let them speak for themselves.