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Recovery is possible; breaking the cycle of an eating disorder

  • Clinical Director of Eating Disorders at Priory, Dr Joan Brunton, co-hosts a podcast on Priory’s My Possible Self mental health app
  • Actor - and manager of SEED eating disorder charity - Gemma Oaten urges improved access to resources
  • She stresses the importance of early diagnosis and intervention
  • An eating disorder is a distressing mental illness, estimated to affect around 1.25m people in the UK, and at least 9% of the population worldwide

Dr Joan Brunton, Clinical Director of Eating Disorders at Priory, spends an hour in conversation with actor and eating disorders campaigner Gemma Oaten about how Gemma lived with eating disorders anorexia and bulimia for 13 years.  

Now a highly successful TV and theatre actor (best known for her roles on Emmerdale, Holby City and Coronation Street), Gemma campaigns for greater access to therapeutic and specialist eating disorder services. She also campaigns for improved training for GPs, better overall awareness of eating disorders in primary care, more understanding of the dangers of relapse in patients recovering from an eating disorder, and an acknowledgement that recovery can be a long and complex process, with many bumps in the road.

During the podcast, hosted on the mental health app, My Possible Self, Gemma and Dr Brunton, of Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in London, discuss the issues, sensitivities - and failings - around diagnosis and management of eating disorders.

And, a key issue they agree on is the importance of early intervention - and never dismissing someone as ‘too young’ or ‘too heavy’ to have an eating disorder. Gemma was 10-years-old when her parents, who went on to launch the support charity, SEED, became concerned about her weight. She tells Dr Brunton how she was initially turned away and ‘sent home’ by a doctor.

The conversation explores a wide range of contributory factors, with Dr Brunton explaining how “psychological and vulnerability problems” can trigger an eating disorder. The expert goes on to discuss how research is trying to better understand why some young people fall victim to the “destructive voices” of an eating disorder, whilst other people manage to override a belief that they can control their lives and emotions by controlling their weight and food intake.

Dr Brunton talks to Gemma about ongoing research into the role of an individual’s metabolism. Why can some people ignore the pain of hunger and continue depriving themselves of food, whilst others are unable to give into the pangs and are therefore unlikely to fall into a downward spiral? The notion that eating disorders are prevalent in “vain people who just want to be thin, is nonsense”, says Dr Brunton.

Both Gemma and Dr Brunton agree that the “common dominator” in all eating disorders is that self-esteem “plummets” and that specialist psychotherapy must be provided.

Gemma speaks movingly about how she was trapped in a cycle of being, “fed-up, shipped out, relapsed”/“fed-up, shipped out, relapsed” for more than 10 years, and presents a powerful and deeply personal case for the need for follow-on, step-down therapy and rehabilitation into the community, enabling a person to navigate a ‘normal life’ once inpatient treatment is complete – something which Dr Brunton fully advocates.

Dr Brunton adds; “It’s vital that doctors and therapists understand a patient with an eating disorder as a person and not a set of symptoms….An eating disorder can make you lose the person that was once there…..but recovery is possible. We have to work together to build new ways of coping, learning to accept your body again and to ensure that brief periods of inpatient admissions are always followed up with community services therapy to avoid the risk of relapse.

“If you were to break a leg, a doctor can’t just fix the bone and expect you to get up and walk on it straight away….the therapy always requires a plaster cast and crutches.”

Why should the approach to mending a complex mental health condition such as an eating disorder be any different? As Dr Brunton explains, a holistic approach is necessary; “Until the person gets help building new ways of coping with their life, their new body and rebuilding self-esteem, you’re not going to get any change.”

To listen to the episode in full, the My Possible Self podcast is available at Apple Podcasts; Spotify; Amazon Music / Audible

The My Possible Self app draws on the professional advice and experience of Priory’s world-leading consultants, and encourages users to track their emotions so they become aware of what activities, people and places affect their moods - and learn to consciously promote positive thoughts and actions over negative ones. It employs sympathetic animated characters to encourage users to “reframe” their reactions to situations that might induce stress or depression.

The app includes: toolkits to monitor progress; visual and audio exercises to help boost mood and relax the mind and promote sleep; journals to record worries and emotions and actions ‘in the moment’; and motivational messages and tips for encouragement.

My Possible Self allows people who are having issues with their mental health but cannot access face to face therapy or attend physical appointments to obtain a wealth of resources online that have been clinically certified by Priory experts. Users say they find it convenient and valuable in terms of instant self-care and ‘checking in’ on their mental health – and that it is ‘like having a Priory therapist in your pocket’.

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