‘The time to act is now’: Tooting campaigner calls for better support for people with eating disorders
A Tooting resident launched the campaign #DumpTheScales 6 months ago and has gained huge support with 67,000 signatures on her petition and an Early Day Motion tabled by 31 MPs.
Hope Virgo, 27, started the campaign after being told she wasn’t eligible for support with her eating disorder because she wasn’t thin enough, and has since spoken to many others who’ve had the same experience.
While official guidelines state that BMI and weight should not be used as a tool for diagnosing anorexia, in practice GPs up and down Britain turn away patients for this reason.
Hope suggested that there should be a record of who gets turned away, for what reason, and where people get referred to.
She said: “I know a lot of people who have been turned away from services who then feel like this fake anorexic person and then they feel they want to prove a point.
“Quite often when you tell an anorexic person they’re not thin enough, the illness makes you competitive, you then want to do more for the anorexia, you want to lose all of that weight and get to a certain size to prove to everyone around you that you can be thin enough.”
Hope added: “I want the guidelines to be implemented across the country properly, whether it’s extra comms around the guidelines, raising understanding that way.
“We should also do something about GP training, so raising awareness and understanding that eating disorders aren’t a physical illness, they’re a mental illness and they can’t be judged on weight.”
Hope was hospitalised at 16 when anorexia almost caused her heart to stop and spent a year as an inpatient learning about food, exercise and how to process emotions in a healthy way.
The problem is that as soon as a patient reaches a ‘healthy’ weight they are discharged, even if their mental wellbeing is still poor and they don’t feel ready for release.
“One of my motivations to get well was to go to University. My anorexia had already caused me to miss out on so much so I didn’t want to miss out on anything else,” she said.
“I was terrified about getting unwell again and maybe that fear is what kept me well. It wasn’t an easy ride that first year. There was the usual university pressure but add to that nights of feeling huge, the unpredictable meals out and the drinking.”
For four years after university Hope managed to keep a healthy attitude towards her food, until in 2016 her grandmother died and she relapsed.
She recognised the anorexic voice coming back and referred herself to eating disorder services after a few months, but was deemed not sick enough to need support.
“Being turned away because of your weight, even though you’re really, really struggling just put me in such a bad place,” she said.
After becoming suicidal and returning to her GP Hope was prescribed anti-depressants and used what she had learnt while hospitalised to help her through recovery alone, managing her illness month by month.
“My challenge at the moment is I try and have un-portion controlled stuff – a 99 flake ice cream, the other week I went out for pizza to a new restaurant where I didn’t know the menu.”
Other stories from anorexia sufferers show Hope is not alone.
Michaela Shipley, 18, from Buckinghamshire, said: “I’ve had two assessments with the eating disorder service this year but they refuse to give any sort of help because my weight/BMI doesn’t meet their criteria.
“I’m on medication which increases weight. My secondary worker told my mum that ‘I must be eating more than what we were saying otherwise I’d look more ill and weigh less’.”
A patient in Plymouth, who wishes to remain anonymous, told of how doctors assessed her by telling her to do a squat. When she was able to do it she was told there were far sicker people and she wouldn’t be getting treatment.
A few months later she was hospitalised after starving herself until she couldn’t squat.
There are thousands of other stories just like these, and that is why Hope is working alongside MP for Bath Wera Hobhouse to get things changed.
Hope asks that people sign and share her petition and write to their MP, asking them to support the bill in Parliament.
Hope said: “If we want to prevent people getting more unwell, save the NHS money, prevent hospital admissions and save lives, we need to have this review.
“It is time we stopped waiting for people to hit crisis point before offering them support. With 1.25 million people in the UK living with an eating disorder we can’t afford to wait any longer. The time to act is now.”