Eating disorders common in middle-aged women

24 January 2017

Interview with

Liz Fraser, creator of Headcase and Richard Sly, Beat

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A new study suggests that thousands of middle-aged women could be suffering silently from bulimia, anorexia or binge-eating. These types of mental illness are usually associated with teenage girls. However, the research from University College London has shown 1 in 28 have women in their 40s and 50s are struggling with an eating disorder and the majority of them are not seeking any help or treatment. Liz Fraser had bulimia for 15 years and as she explained to Graihagh Jackson, it nearly cost her her life...

Liz - With mental health problems, I think it’s very difficult to identify the moment that it started. I was a fairly typical case I guess. I was 15, not very happy at home, brother leaves home, a lot of academic pressure, very highly driven, very high standards. But losing a bit of weight became a thing and you had a graph. I used to like plotting the numbers and, if the numbers didn’t go down, then that was a bad day. So everything good or bad became associated with this graph, regardless of my size, that was almost immaterial. What starts as something every so often, then becomes all the time, and then become an addiction. And at that point, even if you don’t want to exhibit these behaviours, even if you don’t want to behave that way you still will, because that’s what you do.

Graihagh - Was there a point for you where you just thought this is it, I’ve gone too far and I need help or, what was that turning point for you?

Liz - For me, as with many people, there were probably many points like that. That’s one the frustrating things with addiction, isn’t it? You have those moments where you go right, I’m going to sort this out, I’m going to put lists on fridges and I’m going to… and then you don’t. You do for a while and then you have a relapse and every time that happens you think 'damn it, I was not going to do this.' I was going to be determined and then that knocks you even further down. Then, for whatever reason, you wake up feeling stronger and you go right, I’m going to sort this out. So I think you have to be prepared, one has to be prepared in the recovery process for these relapses to occur and not to get lower and lower down.

I had three children during this time - not when I was 15 I hasten to add. This continued until I was 30 - 30’s often quite a turning point for people. So I looked well, and I appeared to be functioning well, and I got a degree from Cambridge and I was making films and TV programmes. I had young kids, I was looking after them but to anybody in the outside world, I was very well. But I think the real crunch came for me when my youngest was about one or one and a half and just one day in my kitchen I nearly died standing right there. I can remember feeling this ice cold, freezing, that was it.

Graihagh - Sadly Liz isn’t alone. Dr Richard Slye from the Eating Disorder Charity BEAT…

Richard - They affect about 725 thousand men and women of all ages and backgrounds in the UK. It’s not just this stereotype that people have of young middle-class teenage girls going through a phase or doing it to look good. These are serious mental illnesses which can impact on anybody.

Graihagh - Now Liz described her experience of bulimia. She had bulimia for 15 years but, amazingly, she was functional still, she had three children. But my understanding is that eating disorders actually claim more lives than any other mental illness like depression or psychosis.

Richard - Yeah, absolutely. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness out there. These are illnesses that can really destroy someone’s life and impact greatly on the family of that person as well.

Graihagh - Because this study published recently in the BMC is looking for the first time, which I find very staggering, about the prevalence of eating disorders in women across all ages, particularly in their 40s and 50s, and I was surprised at some of the statistics in that. It was 15 percent of women had had an eating disorder at some point in their life and 3.6 percent were currently struggling with one now. Is this something that you were surprised by?

Richard - Well first I’d like to say we wholeheartedly welcome this research. There’s not enough research into this and this is actually really important and exciting research. This figure of 15 percent of women having an eating disorder at some point in their life and 3 percent currently suffering is actually quite alarming but it’s not something we’re particularly surprised by.

Beat run a helpline which is open 365 days a year and last year, 15 percent of our calls to the helpline were about someone over the age of 40. This research further supports the importance of providing an appropriate treatment pathway for individuals with eating disorders all ages. Because, at the moment, the focus is very much on helping young people out, and people in their later years or who are in midlife find it very hard to get the treatment they need for their eating disorder.

Graihagh - What is the treatment for it? How do you get better or recover from something like this?

Richard - Recovery is hard but it’s possible and it’s incredibly worth it. Generally, it’s going to be a form of talking therapy and people can start thinking about the reasons behind their behaviours.

Graihagh - Because the sad fact is, and this is something the paper highlights, is that those who reported having an eating disorder, less than a third of them actually sought any help. I just wonder why is that, what is the barrier there for people getting what they really deserve and need?

Richard - I think in this population that we’re talking about, they can find it almost embarrassing to go to a GP and say that you have this illness which is wrongly associated to be a teenage girl’s illness, and I think there can be a lot of shame or embarrassment around that.

Graihagh - Liz, despite all the stigmatising and stereotyping, did seek help and turned her experience into something positive - a website.

Liz - It’s inmyheadcase.com.

Graihagh - She hopes headcase will turn mental health on its head by sharing her experiences…

Liz - Headcase came out of all of my experiences of different types of mental health problems, whether it be eating disorders when I was younger. When I was in my 30s I had panic attacks and then I had a breakdown in my early 40s and what I found, every time I talked about it that person would say “I had that too” or “my mum had that,” “my friend had it,” “there’s a guy at work who has that.” It really began to strike me that this stuff is everywhere! Mental health issues affect absolutely everybody, and if it’s not you, it’s someone you know.

It’s part of your life and for as long as we keep it as something weird, it will be associated like that. I want people to wear the Headcase badges and stand up and say, “yeah, I look after my head. I’ve got literally no problem with that at all.” If I’ve got a sore knee I get it seen to.

If I’m feeling anxious, jumpy, panicky, freaked out in any way, I will go and find some help about that. I acknowledge that and I’ll look after my head just as well as I look after my body.

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