By Becca Johnson
It was Eating Disorders Awareness Week last week and I therefore wanted to write a blog about how my own experience of an eating disorder has influenced my nursing degree.
I have had anorexia for 12 years now however I would identify myself as someone that is nearly recovered. It has been a long journey with long periods of both inpatient and outpatient treatment. I have sadly encountered stigma at times, largely fuelled by myths and misconceptions. The misconception that I find most frustrating is this idea that eating disorders are a choice. The thoughts and consequent behaviours associated with an eating disorder are the result of complex biopsychosocial influences. Healthcare professionals have a responsibility to help address these myths and misconceptions. People with eating disorders need and deserve the right treatment at the right time, early intervention is vital.
My own experience of having a mental illness was what influenced me to study mental health nursing. I remember quite distinctly watching the nurses on the ward I was a patient on and thinking to myself, I would love to do what you are doing. I began my UCAS application straight after my last admission. I think some people felt that it was too soon, but I was confident I would cope, and anorexia had robbed me of enough already.
My own lived experience has influenced the way in which I practice. I often look back and reflect on my own hospital admissions to understand what it was that I appreciated in the nurses that cared for me. I recall how it felt to be on a mental health ward and how disempowered and vulnerable that can make you feel. I am always very conscious of the way in which the ward environments impact patient’s mental health as I can remember how distressing it was for me to be cooped up on a hospital ward. I believe my lived experience has enhanced my qualities and values and I endeavour to always practice in a person-centred and holistic manner. I witnessed poor practice as a patient however I also received incredible nursing care at times. Over time I have reflected on what made some nurses so good at what they did, and I have tried to ensure I have incorporated this into my own practice.
I have concerns over the amount of teaching student nurses receive on eating disorders. They are relevant for all fields and a lack of knowledge and understanding by nurses can have a very detrimental impact on the care patients with eating disorders receive. I have experienced ignorant and judgemental attitudes by nurses in a personal and professional capacity. I think that this is often because of poor understanding and insufficient training. It strikes me that there is such limited content in medical and nursing education, especially considering eating disorders are becoming increasingly common and are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. Healthcare staff are in a prime position to identify signs that an individual may be struggling with an eating disorder and should be able to signpost them to the relevant support. Without knowledge and understanding, healthcare professionals will not be aware of these signs. I also believe it is important for healthcare professionals to have some understanding of the best ways to support someone with an eating disorder in their care. I am hoping that in the future I will be able to support nurse education by offering lived experience talks to students and healthcare professionals.