Mental Health in the Media- Change Needs to Happen. Now.

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As a sufferer of the mental health condition Anorexia Nervosa, I am determined to share my story through a blog, to raise awareness of the condition, and the difficulties that I have to struggle with.

So today I experienced the utter ignorance, unawareness and sham that is the majority of the media industry. I have only just managed to compose myself to produce this blog post after I received the email this morning; I was absolutely livid.

Let me explain.

I was asked by a feature editor from a news agency to detail my experience of living with Anorexia, in the hope of it potentially becoming an item for national newspapers and women’s magazines. We conversed via email, where I expressed my concerns about the nature of the article and the angle that it was going to be written from. I specified that I would only participate if the piece of writing was positive and provided hope for those suffering, as I wanted the message to be consistent with my blog and other means of raising awareness. Being aware of previous articles that I have read about eating disorders and mental health, I wanted to make sure that this one would be informative and detailed, but not harmful. Unable to put my mind at ease in writing, I had a long phone call with the feature editor, which allowed me to ask the questions I wanted answering and she described the entire process to me. The whole conversation was a massive learning curve in terms of gaining an understanding of the way that the media receive the stories, then purchase the rights to exclusivity. I was a bit cautious about some of the elements that were described, such as having the story voiced back to me over the phone rather than in writing. However, I was reassured that I could back out at any time, other than if an agreement was signed. I decided to go ahead, with the positive ambition that this would just be another avenue that I could get my story out there and see if it made a difference to people or the services available to access help.

After queries where ironed out, I proceeded to explain my story. I stressed the fact that an eating disorder is a mental illness, and although food is a big part of it, the condition is so complex that it isn’t just about that. The young woman was empathic throughout the conversation and tried to understand the difficulties of the illness; which I was appreciative of. I detailed the different behaviours I developed, the deterioration of my physical health and the emotional distresses I was experiencing. She then asked me a question which I wasn’t all that pleased about answering, but I knew that it would have to be detailed; my BMI at my lowest weight and my BMI now. I gave this information but expressed how I didn’t want the article to focus on these, or in fact any numbers that I was giving, including calorie restrictions. As the conversation progressed, she kept asking me about what I was eating, to which I replied with the meal plan that I was on since my diagnosis. I think this came as quite a surprise, as she said something along the lines of “so you weren’t starving yourself?”- A classic misconception with eating disorders. I continued to detail the way that Anorexia affected me- the meticulous planning, the ‘safe foods’, constant calculations, unrest around new situations, dislike of change. But the conversation turned back to food again- “so did you have a calorie limit that you set yourself?” Yes, but this is not the main focus of the illness! It is the label checking, avoidance of supermarkets, inability to attend social events, complete lack of confidence. Every time I tried to push the fact that the illness is not just about food, it didn’t seem to stick.

Then the following question arose- “Do you have any photos of you at your lowest?” Yes, I do, but I am completely covered up in clothing that was around two sizes bigger than my actual body. This didn’t seem to go down well. The feature editor mentioned that as distressing as this may be, it would be the main attention grabbing aspect of the story. I was aware of this, as I have said, I have read articles about eating disorder sufferers, and seen that this is the main element of the page. I again confirmed that I do not have any photos of my bare body, and the tone of the conversation changed. She stated that she was unsure as to whether the story could be pursued at this time if I didn’t provide such images; but asked me to send across what I did have. The conversation ended shortly after.

I entered the living room and sat down to speak to my dad. I detailed the conversation and was already sure that the story would not be pursued. He said that it would maybe be for the best, seen as though I was going to have very little involvement in the content of the article. I agreed, and said that I was concerned about opening up a magazine or newspaper to read a story about myself that had been twisted or altered. I cannot think of anything worse than being associated with an article that is damaging, negative or false; completely destroying all of my efforts in raising awareness about the illness and the positivity that can come out of it.

Well, today I received an email that made every muscle in my body tense up with anger. I will not quote the entire message, but basically, because my story and pictures are not ‘shocking’ enough, the feature will not be published. I was livid. So because my story does not comply with what the public perceives eating disorders to be like, it is not worthy of being published! So because I was actually eating and not starving myself, it is not worthy of being published! So because I decided not to take photos of my bare body when I was critically ill, and was utterly ashamed of my situation, it is not worthy of being published!

How on earth is the general public supposed to gain a true understanding of the variety, complexity and severity of eating disorders, when the media refuse to expose a genuine story! I understand that photographs and surprising details will capture reader’s attention; of course it will, because it is an extreme account. So does that mean that my journey through diagnosis, treatment and recovery is not as severe? Of course it doesn’t; I have gone through hell and back in the past few years!

My main frustration stems from the fact that if the media continue to publish articles about eating disorders that constantly fit the ‘mould’ that has been designed, then how are people’s perceptions going to change? I could have had a huge impact in changing how individuals view mental health with this opportunity, but I guess some outlets aren’t willing to take the risk.

I want to thank The Yorkshire Times for giving me the opportunity to share pieces of writing that are from a personal experience of living with an eating disorder. I am incredibly grateful to you for taking a risk and breaking the mould around what the media think people are interested in reading.

If you are a media outlet and reading this post, I ask you to really think about the effect that you are having on the general public. Stigma around mental health is created by stories that you provide; take some time to reflect on that.

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