NI children as young as 13 developed an eating disorder during lockown - says charity

“No one should die from an eating disorder,” said Co Down woman Colette Lydon.

Saturday, 17th April 2021, 7:00 am
Colette Lydon, who had an eating disorder during her teenage years

Colette, a peer support worker with the charity Eating Disorders Association NI, was commenting following the recent death of reality TV personality Nikki Grahame, who had anorexia for most of her life.

Having battled an eating disorder during her teenage years, Colette, 26, knows, first-hand, the devastating impact of the mental health illness, and the added pressure lockdown will have placed on sufferers and their families.

Nikki Grahame, who was a contestant on Channel 4’s Big Brother in 2006 and later starred in her own reality show Princess Nikki, died last Friday at the age of 38. She had recently received treatment for an eating disorder at a specialist clinic.

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Reality TV star Nikki Grahame, who rose to fame as a contestant on Big Brother, died recently aged 38.

With the celeb’s condition worsening during the coronavirus pandemic, her friends set up a fundraising page to help her access support. It said the basic treatment she had been receiving from the NHS was not working and that her only option was to seek intensive care privately.

At the end of March, her mother, Sue Grahame told ITV’s This Morning that her daughter had been affected by the closure of gyms and feelings of loneliness in the pandemic.

She also recounted how her daughter spent time receiving treatment as a child and teenager, adding that parents should try and get help as soon as possible.

Colette, from Hilltown, said her own eating disorder started when she was just 12 and continued until she was around 19-years-old.

“I was diagnosed with bulimia, but I would have had a lot of different periods throughout my teenage years with binge eating and restriction, but bulimia was at the forefront.”

Colette said her eating disorder came from a “place of low self-esteem and low confidence.”

“I was bigger than my friends and I really internalised that at that time. I thought that because I wasn’t as slim or as pretty as them, I didn’t deserve happiness. I started feeling really down about myself, so restricting what I was eating was a coping mechanism for me at that point.”

She added: “When you aren’t eating you don’t feel your emotions, you’re kind of numb - that wouldn’t be uncommon for people with eating disorders - taking away food or over-eating stops you from actually having to think about your emotions. But then it becomes like an addiction where you are stuck in it and you get obsessive about your weight and about what you eat and you have all these rules.

“It went on like that for me for a really long time until I was at university and got to the point where I was really, really depressed and I thought I can’t do this anymore so I went to my GP at that point.”

Colette got referred for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which she said was really beneficial, and was put on the waiting list for the Eating Disorder Services, which operate in each NI health trust.

Now on the other side of her illness, she thinks lockdown will have had a detrimental impact on those with eating disorders.

“Eating disorders really do thrive in secrecy; I do have some experience with that because I kept mine a secret for a very long time.

“It’s one of those things that it only really starts to get better when you open up to someone. It sometimes takes people months or years to get to that point.

“I think especially for young people where before lockdown they might have had a teacher or someone else pick up on it, now all of a sudden people are at home more, so there’s no one really there to see that they are struggling and so that makes them even more isolated, which makes the eating disorder even more severe.”

She also believes social media pressure during lockdown to lose weight and get in shape may have had a negative impact on some people.

“There has been so much emphasis telling young people that the most important thing is that you are good looking and slim. That is really harmful messaging and people are using this time alone to lose weight so that whenever lockdown ends they can look their best. Some people can do that, and it doesn’t affect their mental health, but for a lot of people it really does. I think lockdown has really allowed that to thrive, especially when people are not seeing their friends and their family and they have a lot more time to think about themselves and scrutinise themselves.”

Ann McCann, who set up the Eating Disorders Association NI in 1992 after a family member was affected by an eating disorder, agrees that lockdown may have exacerbated problems for some.

“I’ve been getting quite a lot more calls from parents with children as young as 13 and 14 and many of them are saying that it was because of the lockdown that the eating disorder started. There has been this constant pressure during lockdown to keep fit and to watch what you eat. Also, people with eating disorders, most of them will have a very strict regime, so if they can get over their anorexia and start eating a little, they compensate that by their walking or doing their press-ups or cycling, or whatever, and of course the lockdown interrupted that.”

According to Ann, some may have found their eating disorder re-emerged during lockdown.

“People who have maybe been managing their eating disorder, then have been stuck in the house with the children or home-schooling, perhaps turn to comfort eating, those people are phoning up and saying they thought they had moved away from their disorder, but have found they have started bingeing and then their old habit of bulimia kicked in again. An eating disorder is addictive behaviour so most people say they can fall back into it when they’ve got problems.”

Ann said the first port of call for anyone concerned about themselves or a loved is to contact their GP.

“They are the only ones that can refer someone on to specialist services.”

During lockdown as face-to-face doctor appointments have been restricted, GP consultations have mainly been by phone, which, Ann believes, has had its benefits.

“Before the lockdown, a parent would have had to make an appointment and would have had to bring their son or daughter with them to the doctor. They maybe wouldn’t want to go, so it could be a very fraught time. Whereas now some of the parents are telling me that they are able to have a good conversation with the GP and have an opportunity of stressing how difficult and how serious the eating disorder is becoming.”

*The Eating Disorders Association NI can be contacted on 028 90235959.

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