Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 3:25 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change) 3:25 pm, 23rd July 2019

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that has been explored in several debates on eating disorders. We are somewhat hemmed in by stereotypes, and I wonder whether our age is particularly prone to that. We think eating disorders are a particular thing, so for a long time they have been a problem for young girls, but they affect people of all ages, and men increasingly. As we have explored today, body image and mental health are not gender-specific, but men suffer in silence more, because they are much less likely to talk about things, and subsequently they seek help a lot later, which can be dangerous. In fact, it is well known that the highest number of suicides are among men between the ages of 18 and 25, because men—this is a cultural stereotype that we can hopefully overcome—just do not talk about their body image, anxieties and mental health as much as women.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation published last March shows how common it is to have body image concerns, and we have heard many other statistics today. One in five UK adults have felt anxious or depressed about their bodies in the past year, and that anxiety can turn into long-term mental health problems, such as eating disorders. Across the country, eating disorders affect 1.25 million people, which is probably a conservative estimate. My work in this area supports that suggestion, and the sufferers that I have met come from a range of different backgrounds, but they are united by their dissatisfaction with, and need to control, their body image. Dr Cameron has already talked powerfully about that.

Of course, eating disorders are far more complex than stress over body image. They are serious conditions that ruin, define and, all too often, end lives. However, the seeds of emergent eating disorders can often be spotted in stress or anxiety about body image. For the more than 1 million people who were identified as having an eating disorder, the outlook is not good. On average, it takes 85 weeks between someone realising they have an eating disorder and that individual receiving treatment. That lost time can be the difference between full recovery and living with a permanent disability or disorder. The Government targets introduced to limit child waiting times for eating disorder treatments were a positive step, but thousands of adults across the UK need the same measures. We need to consider the waiting times for adult sufferers of eating disorders, and I know that the Minister has already looked into that.

Understanding eating disorders better is key to improving treatment. Many sufferers still report being turned away and refused referral, because doctors have told them that they are not thin enough to be treated for an eating disorder—I know that the Minister has talked to Hope Virgo, who has been running the “Dump the Scales” campaign—but an eating disorder is not just about someone’s body mass index. By talking about eating disorders, especially in the context of body image, we can start to grasp how damaging that can be. We must educate everyone, from sufferers’ families to doctors, about the many different forms that such conditions can take and how best to treat them. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition, and our mental health policy must reflect that. This is a crisis, but we are not treating it as such.

Early intervention is key. Schools, doctors and support workers must be equipped with the tools to identify when body image concerns are becoming dangerous. Furthermore, we must change the cultural conversation around body image, which can be done on many levels. As we have already heard today, social media companies have a responsibility to police the content on their websites, ensuring that anything that actively incites self-harm is taken down. Eating disorders are on the rise, and many adult sufferers are failing to receive the early intervention they so desperately need. We must do better for those suffering in silence and start having a conversation about body image, mental health and the awful reality of life with an eating disorder.