TW: This blog discusses mental illness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, anxiety, OCD plus a healthy dose of ignorance about all the above!

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Hazel Leishman, one of my 2020 graduates, on an instalive as part of a series that The MTA’s been running called “In Conversation”. Mostly I just get to catch up with my graduates during these discussions. Sometimes the graduates have asked to use the platform to get certain messages out there eg Eva Bortalis a 2018 grad used it straight away after the George Floyd murder in order to air her views about the then growing BLM movement, or Paris Hoxton, also a 2018 grad who used it to raise awareness of living with bipolar. In fact we’ve had quite a few mental health awareness discussions, Sarah Hjort (2019) discussed living with anxiety and David Murphy (2017) had a hugely thought provoking chat about living with depression. In fact David’s words have really stuck with me. When asked what were his early symptoms of depression his replied without hesitation – always looking happy. A stark reminder that we shouldn’t assume that the depressed person who’s at most risk, is the one rocking in a corner.

Last year when we started the series Hazel had commented that we should have somebody speaking about Eating Disorders as part of the series.  Now that’s easier said than done as I would never ask somebody to speak about a mental illness, the impetus and request must always come from the ‘guest’. At the time Hazel dallied with the idea of going ‘live’, but I actually stopped it, as I didn’t feel that she was well enough to do it. Whilst she was clearly over the worse of her own experience at that time, I always feel that the best stories that would have the most positive outcome are the stories from the people that have truly got their illnesses under treatment, or in remission, or indeed cured. So we agreed to shelve it.  Cue Hazel coming back to me this year to tell me how well she had been doing and how she was about to launch a social media platform on which she was going to be open about her own EDs, with the aim of helping people that found themselves in the same position as she had found herself in, and so she was now ready to have the conversation.

So little is known about Eating Disorders, the misconceptions around how they start are legendary, Hazel went straight into myth busting mode, naming from the outset that the majority of EDs come from a place of needing to be in control. In fact they’re very similar to OCD insomuch as control is often the major contributing factor.  For sure other things can trigger them, but the widely perceived logic that people just want to look smaller is often miles off the mark (yet I guess easier for people to try and make sense of loved ones starving themselves to death, or binging, or . . . well . . you know the rest). EDs, like OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia are often the ugly side of mental illnesses that people don’t really like talking about – they’ve never made the popular list.

Even after the recent high profile death of Nikki Grahame this insidious illness still managed to hide in plain sight. As a few posts started to go online about the ludicrous situation that people suffering with EDs had to be essentially ‘ill enough’ to even start treatment (and by ‘ill enough’ please understand that sometimes that translates to ‘too ill to treat effectively) within a few days it had crept away again to a few niche posts. 

Then fast forward to this week and on another social media platform I watched one of those autobiographical “A Day in the Life of a dance/drama/music Student’ videos. I always find it interesting to see a day from the students’ perspective. What I didn’t expect in this specific “A Day in the life of  Dance Student” was this sentence “then we went to get weighed”.  In fact I watched the video several times thinking that I must have misheard it.  Then I read the comments. Lots of people had also questioned this part of their ‘average day’ – even more alarmingly the people posing the question of WTF were “reassured” that this was part of this particular college’s strategy to PREVENT eating disorders!! By regularly monitoring the students’ weight they could spot an issue before it arose.

I immediately did my usual twitter rant to find out if everybody knew about this practice, but as per usual those posts never really ‘take off’ and promote the discussion that’s actually needed. I mean interestingly pop up a post about wanting to see more ‘normal’ shaped people in roles and they go viral in a heartbeat, as of course ‘self interest’ will always prompt a viral response. 

Heigh ho, the post did prompt a few interesting private messages though. So did you know that some colleges and some work places (specifically cruise companies) will make students/casts sign a contract which essentially ties them into a specific weight (give or take a few pounds)? That’s right you did read that correctly – people are made to sign a contract to keep them within a certain weight parameter. Let’s not discuss hormonal weight flux, or muscle mass etc, let’s just pop people on a scale to see how they’re doing.  Believe it or not – this is meant to be helping mental health in the workplace or during training. I’m going to chose not to share some of the techniques and secrets that were shared with me that people did in order to get around some of these conditions, as I know that people with EDs are clever sods who are always on the look out for a get around – however let’s just say that you should never undermine the intelligence & creativity of a person in the middle of an ED, those illnesses are bloody crafty.

Let’s quickly recap back to Hazel’s opening gambit – EDs are usually about control. Notice the bloody massive issue here?

However that’s not all I’ve learned recently. I’ve also discovered that certain cruise companies are STILL not issuing contracts to people who have named that they’re on anti-depressants.  I mean it makes sense doesn’t it? People that are on a treatment for depression should not be permitted to work in the middle of the ocean.  Far, far better to essentially force people to either lie, or indeed (and I’ve witnessed this myself) make people chose between a treatment or a job. I mean – that’s never named, but I’ve known people that have chosen to come off a treatment dose that is helping them in order to fulfil a contract on a cruise ship. The thinking being that work, sun and sea will essentially do the work of the medicine, failing to understand that vitamin D helps all of us feel a bit happier, but for many people they require a much more robust chemical treatment in order to recover from a mental illness. Those same people wonder why they’re in their dream job, in a luxurious part of the world, having a mental health crisis. 

So next time you’re reading all the positive posts about people being more open about mental health and mental illness these days, next time you’re celebrating the 50th person you know becoming a Mental Health first aider, please know that at a very basic level, during training and during jobs, our industry has a hell of a long way to go in order to get on top of this epidemic. 

Next time you see the “It’s OK not to be OK” mantra that’s become so popular, or the “My DMs are open” invitation to chat to an understanding mate, what would be better is if we actually dealt with mental illness (not just look at mental health, it always has to be both, and) at a grass roots level, because you know what’s better than being OK? Being well or being in recovery.