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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Managing an eating disorder shouldn’t entail putting my education on hold

NHS failings mean sufferers are feeling obliged to suspend their studies

When I was diagnosed with anorexia aged 12, GCSEs seemed incredibly distant, let alone university, adulthood and having to feed myself.

I had every intention of getting better in time but, as with all mental health problems, the deep-seated and complex nature of an eating disorder is not to be underestimated. That there are many of us managing eating disorders at Oxford may seem surprising to a non-sufferer, but I would say 90% of Oxford students have certain personality traits that could easily find expression through disordered eating. Perfectionism, thirst for challenges, and dedication are all real assets to students at a university like ours.

However, things can go awry when living up to the highest of self-imposed standards is literally jeopardising living itself. The university cannot deny that their learning environment also happens to provide the ideal conditions for the development of a plethora of mental health problems, eating disorders being just one of the most prevalent.

This is the crux of the problem. I do not mean to get on my NHS-basher’s high horse, but I must stress how inadequate provisions are for students like myself who run the ever-increasing risk of rustication as their not-quite-life-threatening eating disorder goes untreated.

Although mental health services countrywide are failing to meet demand, the fact that high-achievers are more likely to develop an eating disorder (and often related anxiety and depression) means that Oxfordshire’s services are more oversubscribed than most. My experience of waiting lists at home versus those at university is testament to this. Clinically underweight and only continuing to lose, I was presented with a 15-month wait for dietary and psychological help from the outpatients’ service at Cotswold House, the local NHS eating disorders unit.

Herein lay the dilemma, one which I know cannot be unique only to me. Either I could rusticate and get the much-needed help quicker, or continue with my studies as my physical and mental health worsened, maybe to the point at which I would end up needing to rusticate anyway. I wanted the psychological help here in Oxford – but it would only be accessible if I returned to the brink of organ failure.

This is the reality, dramatic as it may sound, of having a ‘functional’ eating disorder at Oxford. Despite lacking the severity to warrant immediate intervention through hospitalisation, this kind of eating disorder, whether it be anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, can still force a student to suspend their studies. So many feel compelled to put their education on hold in order to compensate for the NHS’s failings.

The only other alternative is to bite the bullet and go private, if indeed you are privileged enough to have literal thousands lying around. Were this not my fortunate position, I would have had to have rusticated. My Oxford GP was an advocate of paying for treatment and for good reason – it has allowed me to make the most of the incredible opportunity that is working towards an Oxford degree.

I am fully aware that I have given a less-than-glowing review of Oxford from the perspective of someone with an eating disorder, but at least the university does recognise that its high-pressured environment fosters the development and persistence of eating disorders.

In my experience, tutors have stepped up to make my degree doable despite my inability to access NHS help. The very fact I am still here is testament to their understanding and flexibility when it came to pushing back deadlines, giving me special consideration in collections, and sending me regular check-up emails. I have tried to avoid it as much as possible, but when I have needed to miss a class to attend my (of course, private) psychologist appointments, no questions have been asked.

Dealing with my eating disorder has put me on medication for depression and seen my anxiety get so bad that I had to sit Prelims in college – but it could have been much worse.

Trying to eat responsibly on the other side of the Atlantic during my year abroad will be hard. Healthcare certainly won’t be as readily available, but I know my tutors will only be a click away. It is only a shame that so much money needed to be thrown at the problem to guard against the rustication that had initially seemed inevitable. The NHS could and should be providing everyone with on-site support, and I hope it is only a short while before the government makes this possible.

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