Health

I was told to 'cheer up' while battling bulimia

Connie Free Image copyright Connie Free
Image caption Connie experienced stigma from friends and her boss while suffering mental health problems

Sitting down on a shop floor crying, Connie Free was at a low point in her battle with bulimia when a manager told her to simply "cheer up".

The 23-year-old is not alone in experiencing negative attitudes towards mental health.

A report from youth charity YMCA, released on Monday to coincide with World Mental Health Day, has found that more than one in three young people with mental health issues have suffered stigma.

Connie was feeling numb and "out of touch with reality" when her boss even suggested she wear more make-up to her job working for a high street retailer.

Image copyright Connie Free
Image caption Connie with her dog Lilly

"It made everything a thousand times worse. It made it so much harder to go into work," Connie said.

"Not only did I have the worry of everything that was going on, I then had on top of that 'I'm going to get in trouble with my job'.

"The worse thing is she was aware of my disorder so why would you say that to someone who had self-esteem issues?

"In the workplace there is very little knowledge of mental health."

Connie, from Brighton, struggled with bulimia for four years and found it difficult to ask friends for help or support.

Those with the condition often try to control their weight by restricting their food, then binge eating and purging the food from their body.

Connie also experienced depression and anxiety linked to her eating disorder.

She recalls hearing friends laughing about those with bulimia and when she confided in one about her disorder she was told "you look fine".

Image copyright Connie Free
Image caption Connie said she felt isolated because some friends did not believe she had a mental illness

Connie said: "I didn't want to come forward because there was so much shame surrounding it.

"Particularly when I was at school, there was so much judgement I couldn't face from even teachers or friends.

"It's a really shameful thing to have. It's very secretive. You don't want people to know you're throwing up because people think it's grim.

"My disorder was never really visible. I was never really under or overweight, I looked completely normal.

"I would get 'you look fine so what's the problem?', that would be people's reaction. People react in a way that they don't believe you. They just brushed it under the carpet.

"It's like a double isolation. You're trapped in your own eating disorder but then you're trapped with people because you feel like you can't go to them."

Image copyright Connie Free
Image caption A YMCA report found one in three young people with mental health issues has experienced stigma

The YMCA spoke to more than 2,000 11 to 24-year-olds in England and Wales, around half of whom had experienced mental health issues, as part of its I Am Whole report.

The charity found 38% of those with mental health difficulties had been stigmatised.

Young people reported being left out of activities, experiencing verbal abuse and suffering from damaged confidence as a result.

Of those, a third found it happened at least once a week and 54% said it came from their own friends.

More than half said it made them less willing to access professional support for their mental health difficulties and 70% were less likely to speak about their problems.


I Am Whole report findings

  • Three-quarters of young people (75%) believe that people experiencing difficulties with mental health are treated negatively as a result of stigma
  • Anxiety (66%) and depression (51%) were the most common mental health conditions experienced by young people
  • Young people who say stigma exists believe they can best tackle it by talking more about mental health (64%) and sharing their experiences (60%)
  • 81% of young people who believe stigma exists say that school is the best place to combat it

Connie sought help after confiding in a concerned friend who urged her to ask for support from her GP.

She attended counselling and support groups through the Brighton and Hove Eating Disorder Service as part of her two-year recovery.

Connie said group therapy was the best method to help her get better as it "made her feel less alone".

She urges those with mental health issues not to see it as "shameful" and said the first step to recovery is asking for help.

"It's 100% not a shameful thing, it's something that goes wrong in your brain," Connie said.

"The hardest part is making that first move to speak about it. Once you've done that you can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

"I thought before I sought any help there was no way I was going to get better. There was no doubt in my mind it was hopeless.

"I have recovered and even if it's something you have to manage, it is so much better when you're getting help."

Image copyright Connie Free
Image caption Connie said group therapy helped her recovery as it made her feel "less alone"

The YMCA said there needs to be more awareness surrounding mental health in young people.

It is supporting a NHS campaign aimed at reducing stigma and normalising mental health difficulties among young people.

It wants the public to challenge the "harmful language" used to describe mental health conditions and encourage those experiencing problems to ask for support.

It also believes professionals working with young people should be provided with mental health training.

Denise Hatton, chief executive of YMCA England, said: "What is alarming from these findings is the widespread stigma young people are now seeing or experiencing from others that is making them less likely to seek professional help.

"YMCA's mental health services make a huge difference to the lives of young people with mental health difficulties but it is clear more needs to be done to support those who are currently slipping through the net."


Where to find help

Find Get Give

An online mental health service directory and advice website designed for 13 to 25 year olds who are worried about mental health.

The Mix

An advice service that offers a free helpline for under 25s from 11am to 11pm every day. It also offers a one-to-one chat service for young people to live message trained helpline supporters.

Kooth.com

A free online service that offers emotional and mental health support for young people in certain parts of England and Wales. The service is free and allows users to have a 'drop-in' chat with a counsellor or therapist or book a one-to-one session.

Childline

A support service with a 24-hour helpline for information and advice about a wide range of issues. Young people can also talk to a counsellor online, send an email or post on the message boards.

Young Minds

A youth charity which offers free, confidential online and telephone support to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a young person up to the age of 25.

Local services

Your GP or child's school will be able to offer details of local counselling services for young people. GPs could also refer children to their local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

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