All I could do for my starving daughter was listen without judging

For Anoushka Beardshaw, a typical week at boarding school meant a whirl of extracurricular activities, from dance classes to sailing and rock-climbing lessons. When the first lockdown of March 2020 meant she had to return home to her family di lei in Uckfield, East Sussex, she missed the hustle and bustle of her routine di lei. So much so that it sent her into a dark cycle of self-starvation.

Now 17, she says: ‘At first, when we were all told to stay at home, I’d think: “I’m not going out, so I may as well sit on the sofa and eat popcorn.” Then I’d feel so guilty I wasn’t doing a daily dance class like usual that I wouldn’t eat for four days.

‘I’d hide it from my family by talking a lot during meal times to distract them and by giving my food to the dog.’

With the outside world full of uncertainty, Anoushka says stopping eating gave her a sense of control.

Mothers revealed the struggle to keep their children alive while needing treatment for eating disorders. Pictured: Anoushka, who is still in recovery, and her mother di lei Beth Kates

The factors that contribute to eating disorders are individual and multi-faceted but it seems that national lockdowns – with their social isolation and loss of structure – were the perfect incubator.

The pandemic led to what the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling ‘a tsunami’ of eating disorders. NHS provisional data, published this year, shows there were 4,238 hospital admissions for children aged 17 and under between April and October last year. That’s a 69 per cent rise compared with the same months before the pandemic, when there were 2,508 admissions.

The number of children needing help for eating disorders is now at ‘crisis point’, with waiting lists in England for both boys and girls at record levels, according to analysis of NHS England data.

Dr Agnes Ayton of the Royal College of Psychiatrists sums up the gravity of the situation: ‘Many young people have not received support early enough. Delays to treatment can put lives at risk. Services are struggling with soaring demand, there are fewer beds because of social distancing, and an ongoing shortage of specialist doctors. ‘

Long after Covid restrictions have been lifted, it’s left many parents struggling to keep their children alive. By the time Anoushka returned to school full-time in January 2021, she was starving herself so much that she started fainting, her heart rate fell below 40bpm and her hair began to fall out.

‘When I blacked out in April, my friends told me that if I didn’t tell my mum, they would,’ she explains. ‘I’d managed to keep it a secret as I didn’t want to worry her.’

Anoushka (pictured) said suggestions for 'glow-up challenges' on her social media feed made her think that she should be doing it too

Anoushka (pictured) said suggestions for ‘glow-up challenges’ on her social media feed made her think that she should be doing it too

For Anoushka’s mother Beth Kates, it’s been a difficult learning curve. Beth, a former dancer, admits: ‘When Anoushka told me, I had to take a very deep breath in because I was in such shock.

‘Her father is naturally tall and thin and Anoushka has always had that kind of body, so I assumed she was the shape she was naturally supposed to be. I felt so guilty that I hadn’t noticed.

‘Anoushka has always been so confident; I never saw this vulnerable side to her. It breaks my heart to hear her di lei say she hates her own body di lei. ‘

Worried about long NHS waiting lists, Beth arranged for private counseling. But by then, Anoushka’s eating disorder had burrowed its way deep into her brain di lei. Beth soon became aware of an insidious influence on her daughter di lei: social media.

It breaks my heart to hear her say she hates her own body

Anoushka says: ‘Suggestions for “glow-up” challenges (a social media trend for rapid transformations achieved by intensive dieting, exercise and beauty treatments) would pop up on my feed. It made me think: “I should be doing that too.”

‘I’d post pictures of myself, thinking: “I must look skinny now.” When people responded positively with lots of likes, that encouraged me. ‘

Beth felt she was fighting overwhelming forces. She says: ‘At times it feels like there’s nothing in my parental tool kit that enables me to change Anoushka’s mindset.’

Beth, the owner of underwear company Liberty & Love, which uses women with a range of body types as models, says: ‘Anoushka now has counseling twice a week and the best thing I can do is be an open door to her, completely non -judgmental. I just listen and then go into my bathroom and scream into a towel. ‘

Karina Wick, 14, (pictured) used a calorie-counting app to keep her food intake down to 200 calories and exercised for more than two hours a day

Karina Wick, 14, (pictured) used a calorie-counting app to keep her food intake down to 200 calories and exercised for more than two hours a day

Like Anoushka, 14-year-old Karina Wick was inspired to ‘glow-up’ during lockdown – with devastating results. The desire to look toned led her to exercise for more than two hours a day in her bedroom.

When she started starving herself, her mother Alina, a 41-year-old mother-of-three from Peckham, South London, struggled to get her the help she needed.

‘I knew there was a problem because Karina never finished what was on her plate,’ says Alina, who is married to Gabriel, a taxi driver.

‘She’d say she wasn’t hungry or felt sick. I realized she was working out a lot because I could hear her breathing heavily from her room di lei. I’d ask her to stop. But she’d say: “Mum, there’s nothing else to do. It’s healthy. ” ‘

She was so weak it looked like the wind would blow her over

When, after weeks of daily sit-ups and press-ups, she didn’t get the results she wanted, Karina started using a calorie-counting app to keep her food intake down to 200 calories (around a tenth of the recommended daily calories for young women), eating mainly fruit and chewing gum.

Within nine months, Karina’s anorexia was so severe her heart rate had fallen dangerously low. And yet, the fact Karina had not yet fallen into the lowest two bands on BMI charts, which would have led to an anorexia diagnosis, meant her condition di lei wasn’t considered serious enough to be referred to the local mental health team’s eating disorder service.

‘I couldn’t physically force Karina to eat,’ says Alina. ‘She was so weak, it looked like the wind would blow her over.

Karina's mother Alina (pictured) has been left to weigh her daughter to check she's putting on weight after Karina was given only one in-person consultation

Karina’s mother Alina (pictured) has been left to weigh her daughter to check she’s putting on weight after Karina was given only one in-person consultation

‘There were tears of frustration; long talks about how food is healthy for a growing teenager. But it was all in vain. ‘

Then one night in October 2020, Karina decided she couldn’t wait any longer for professional help – and took an overdose.

Alina recalls: ‘At about 11.30pm, I heard Karina in her bedroom on the phone. I knew something wasn’t right. I went in and heard she was talking to the ambulance and was telling them to come because she’d taken an overdose.

‘It was like I’d been punched in the stomach. When the paramedic asked Karina why she did it, she said it was to get help. ‘

Karina says: ‘I don’t remember much about that night except thinking I wanted to die. I felt like no one cared enough to intervene until I got to the hospital. ‘

I felt like no one cared enough to intervene until I got to hospital

In December, Karina was finally referred by her local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to specialists at the Maudsley Hospital and given blood tests and anorexia medication to regain her appetite.

Since then, however, the backlog of cases means it’s been an ongoing battle to get help. Karina has had only one in-person consultation with professionals trained to treat anorexia. While she had some talking therapy and was given an eating plan, all consultations were on-screen. It’s been up to Alina to weigh her daughter to check she’s putting on weight.

Alina also had to keep pressing until May 2021 for antidepressants for her daughter, which Karina believes were a real turning point: ‘It was finally getting those anti-depressants which made me stop wanting to kill myself.’

Ella Hudson (pictured), who is a recovering anorexic, said putting pressure on people not to put on 'quarantine weight' was the 'worst scenario' for someone with an eating disorder

Ella Hudson (pictured), who is a recovering anorexic, said putting pressure on people not to put on ‘quarantine weight’ was the ‘worst scenario’ for someone with an eating disorder

A recovering anorexic who now researches eating disorders, Ella Hudson believes the only way to beat such disorders is to offer treatment at much earlier stages. She argues this would also save NHS resources, helping some sufferers avoid years of costly interventions. She points to a recent audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers which revealed the cost to society of treating eating disorders is around £ 15 billion a year.

‘Surely this money would be better spent on research and training, so that help can be provided before it’s too late,’ she says.

She, too, found lockdown challenging. She says: ‘Being told to stay inside and only exercise once a day, while social media was putting pressure on people not to put on “quarantine weight”, is the worst scenario imaginable for someone with an eating disorder.’

Ella, from St Andrews, Scotland, says these problems were compounded by the Government’s failure to recognize what people might be going through.

She explains that the coronavirus vaccine rollout did not recognize eating disorders as a form of severe mental illness, which meant those with eating disorders were not classed in the priority group to receive the vaccination earlier.

‘There are still a lot of prejudices towards anorexia – that it’s vain and could be fixed if the person just ate something,’ Ella says.

Though the national lockdowns are over, for many young people and their carers, the struggle with eating disorders is just beginning. Alina says: ‘Sometimes, Karina still looks at pictures from when she was at her di lei most anorexic and says: “That’s when I was at my most beautiful.”

‘She knows how ill she was. But when I hear her say this, I know she is having trouble seeing reality. The anorexia hasn’t gone away. She’s only sleeping. ‘

  • For support for parents of children going through a mental health issue, go to facebook.com/parentingmentalhealth. Or for further help, contact beateatingdisorders.org.uk
  • Tanith Carey is the author of What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents with Dr Angharad Rudkin (DK)

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