Sarah Chisnall: Wake-up call on mental illness

You are more likely to die of an eating disorder than any other form of mental health problem. Picture: Callum Bennets
You are more likely to die of an eating disorder than any other form of mental health problem. Picture: Callum Bennets
Share this article
Have your say

IT’S not often I agree with Nick Clegg, but last week he called on the NHS to stop treating mental illness as a second-class condition to physical illness. He acknowledged that we have allowed mental illness to be kept a secret and that “there is too much ignorance, too much prejudice, too much discrimination”.

One in four of us suffer from mental health problems at some point in our lives. I am one, having suffered on and off from depression and eating disorders during most of my adult life. Last week, Dennis Robertson MSP lodged a Scottish Parliamentary motion to mark Eating Disorder Awareness Week. His motion focuses on the need to raise awareness of the impact of eating disorders as well as commemorating the third anniversary of his daughter’s death as a result of such a disorder.

The stigma surrounding mental illness prevents us from speaking out to family, friends, let alone the wider world. I have always worried what friends might think and how it could affect my career or that of my husband, Mike Crockart, who is an MP. However, two years ago, as part of the “Time to Change Campaign” I pledged to become more open about my battles to help lift the lid, even a little, on these illnesses. I also starting reading and posting links to the mental health charity SANE and its Black Dog Campaign.

You are more likely to die of an eating disorder than any other form of mental health problem. Tragically 13 per cent of anorexia sufferers die from their illness. Those suffering from bulimia often experience depression, swollen glands, dental problems, chemical imbalances resulting in tiredness, weakness, heart problems, kidney damage and suicide. However, eating disorders remain the Cinderella of mental illness in terms of publicity, awareness raising and access to services.

As a teenager I was never referred for any specialist help, despite my lowest weight hovering at 82 pounds. My family GP recorded “anxiety”, “acute fatigue”, and prescribed Metatone and Moriamin, both supplements used in the treatment of “malnutrition, protein & vitamin deficiencies, anaemia and convalescence”. When I moved to Scotland aged 18 to study I weighed 84 pounds (I’m 5’6”).

In my twenties I waited over six months to receive cognitive and behavioural therapy. In my thirties I received various treatments including waiting another year to attend Edinburgh’s Cullen Clinic, which specialises in eating disorders. I have also paid for treatment.

I have learned to manage my depression and bulimia just as I manage my asthma. I have a toolkit of techniques to keep life on track. It can be exhausting and there are days when getting up and doing the school run feels like a mammoth task, let alone working and making decisions around food for me and my family. I still battle with my illness every day, over 30 years after I first started obsessing about food, weight and body image. I can’t avoid food, it’s a part of life and I can’t avoid life.

Anorexia is glorified in many websites. We are bombarded with images of underweight models and unachievable body shapes. We don’t celebrate normally shaped bodies. Articles are only written about size 12 or 14 models or celebrities to vilify their lack of discipline. The fashion industry cites size 12 as “plus size”, despite the average British woman being size 14-16.

Bulimia often feels like the hidden eating disorder. A compulsion which leaves sufferers retching over a toilet bowl, starving themselves one day, eating for comfort another in a binge/purge cycle. Abusing food and severe control of eating is a complex illness. So why is access to services still so difficult compared to access for physical conditions?

I want to see mental illness treated equally, not as a shameful thing to be kept hidden. No-one expects me to hide my asthma or asks why I have it. No one should tolerate waiting six or 12 months or more for treatment of a physical condition. But we accept this as the norm for mental illness. It really is “Time for Change”.

• Sarah Chisnall runs a public affairs consultancy, InsightScotland. She is now a size 12 with a healthy BMI. Find out more about SANE and the Black Dog Campaign at