Man with anorexia told to “shake it off” by work colleagues

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A SCOTTISH man, who spent three months in a coma due to his eating disorder, says he was told to “pull himself together” by his boss when he tried to get support.

Thomas Kelly, 36, from Dalry in North Ayrshire, said he received little support for his anorexia because he was a man - with colleagues even telling him to “shake it off”.

Now Mr Kelly, who has suffered from the mental health condition since he was 17, is hoping to raise awareness about workplace discrimination of eating disorders.

According to a survey by eating disorder charity Beat, around a third of sufferers say they have experienced stigma or discrimination in the workplace. A further 40 per cent said their employers’ impact on their recovery was ‘unhelpful’.

Having suffered from an eating disorder since he was 17, Mr Kelly said his work was unsupportive when he relapsed a second time, after his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

He said: “The second time I relapsed, I had to stay off work to recover. On days where I would go back, I was told I needed to ‘pull myself together’, that I had no reason to experience it and to just ‘give myself a shake’. You wouldn’t tell that to someone suffering from cancer - just shake it off.”

Thomas believes the stigma attached to eating disorders makes it harder for some people to understand.

“It’s still viewed as a female illness so men are very reluctant to come forward and discuss it. It is also viewed as someone attention seeking and not as an actual mental illness - more people need to understand it’s not something you choose to do. For me, it was a coping mechanism.”

After suffering a heart attack, Mr Kelly was in hospital for nine months - three of which he spent in a coma - and was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

“I didn’t expect the diagnosis. I thought I was just cutting down on my food - I never even realised what I was doing. Honestly I thought I was getting fit - looking after my eating and fitness, I enjoyed playing football.

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“I have sciatic nerve damage, which has affected control over my foot, osteoporosis, and irreversible damage to my kidneys, heart and bowels.

“You need to want to recover for yourself. I’ve seen people say they’re in control of it - you can’t control it, it controls you. It’s a mental illness, an eating disorder, so it’s not a choice to have it. But it is a choice to recover from it.”

Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat, said: “Employers can play an important role in supporting recovery. The stigma and misunderstanding experienced by so many in the workplace must be replaced with support and compassion championed by a formal mechanism of support.”

The charity, Beat and in conjunction with enei (Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion) are producing a best practice guide for employers and literature for distribution in the workplace which will be available during Eating Disorders Awareness Week (22-28 February 2016).