My chosen inspirational woman for this fortnight is Jen Fletcher, an Exeter graduate who set up Exeter Beats Eating Disorders in her second year of University following her own recovery from an eating disorder. Jen’s story is one of strength and shows how a difficult experience can become something you are passionate about improving for others. Recovery from an eating disorder is a challenging but rewarding and life-changing experience, and Jen’s story is proof to anyone of the amazing things you can achieve during and after coping with a mental illness.
I write this for anyone who has been affected by eating disorders or might benefit from advice about recovery and support in Exeter.
Mental health issues are troublingly prevalent at University and any offers of support for those who are struggling are much needed. As revealed by an article in Exposé in 2016, there are worryingly poor services for eating disorders in Exeter, which is part of the reason why Jennifer decided to set up the group after her own negative experiences with treatment in the area.
Jen started her journey with Exeter Beats Eating Disorders when she trained as a Beat Young Ambassador at the end of her first year of University. I had a chat with Jen to find out about her journey through her own illness and to understand more about Exeter Beats Eating Disorders.
How would you describe your own recovery and could you give any advice to anyone who is beginning recovery or has recovered?
‘When you’re starting recovery, one of the hardest things is keeping on recovery, but at some point, you’re going to have to do it. That was something I always kept telling myself. The only thing that really kept me going was family and friends and I think that’s why I have been so open about it to people. The more upfront I have been about it, the less I can hide. The more you keep it to yourself, the more engrained and internal it becomes and the harder it is to get out of it. I told everyone around me so that everyone could support me in my recovery and then I had to do it, there was no way I could back out.’
The creation of Exeter Beats Eating Disorders
Jen started Exeter Beats Eating Disorders quite early on in her own recovery, and this helped drive her determination to ‘practice what she preached’ with herself. She wanted to, and has been successful in making herself an example to anyone who is battling with an eating disorder.
After training as a Beat Young Ambassador in Bristol, Jen contacted Mind Your Head Society, which led to Exeter Beats Eating Disorders becoming a campaign alongside Mind Your Head. ‘There was so much interest that we weren’t expecting that making it a society seemed the obvious thing to do if the support continued.’ Exeter Beats Eating Disorders became a society earlier this year.
Jen says that the people she met through the society have become some of her closest friends: ‘It’s a family vibe, you can talk to each other on another level. If someone isn’t having a good day and wants to stay in, people offer to fill in for you.’
What is Exeter Beats Eating Disorders?
‘Exeter Beats Eating Disorders are there as a point of contact for people who don’t feel as if they have a voice. This could be for anything eating disorder-related. They are there to understand what you’re going through because University can be a particularly lonely place, especially with a mental illness. We just wanted a group that people know that they can come and speak to.’
Jen’s campaigning for better services in eating disorders in Exeter
‘I had a psychiatrist who was all tough with no love, and he told me I had to gain weight or I was going to die. I was so angry at him because he was so insensitive that I decided I never wanted to go back and see him. The only way this would happen would be for me to gain weight.
‘I then started to realise that I needed a more positive way of looking at it. If I went into recovery in spite, I was only going to go back down again. When I had started to gain the weight, I started to be able to think better. But the hospital where I received psychological treatment gave me no support when I was gaining weight, which I thought was ridiculous. They told me to come back when I had gained weight, but it’s not just a weight ‘thing’. I didn’t want anyone else to go through this.
‘I was also told by a doctor in a weigh-in that I wasn’t ‘that bad’. The thing that doctors don’t understand is the different way that someone with an eating disorder hears words and unless you’ve gone through it you wouldn’t understand.’
Shockingly, new research from Beat has shown that medical students have less than two hours training in eating disorders throughout their degree.
On behalf of Exeter Beats Eating Disorders, Jen was interviewed by the BBC, Devon Live and ITV News calling for better eating disorders services in Exeter. Following this, Exeter Beats Eating Disorders became a valuable source of information for anyone seeking information about services in the area.
Did you have any challenges in setting up Exeter Beats Eating Disorders?
‘When you’re trying to do something linked to mental health, things become very personal. For example, we realised that how we communicated to students to try and get them involved had to be different than asking them whether they were ‘interested’ in eating disorders and handing out flyers on Forum hill! We soon gave up that idea and took the approach of waiting people to come to us and being active on social media.
‘Also, because I had an internal voice in my head saying, ‘I’m never going to amount to anything’ from the eating disordered mind-set, when things went wrong such as the Guild not allowing ITV to film at the University it led me to think it was my fault. This was an internal challenge I had to face.’
What have you seen have been the consequences of setting up Exeter Beats Eating Disorders?
‘Everyone who started on the campaign have continued in their recovery. This might have happened without the society, but the society enhanced it and gave us that network to keep going and developing.’
What advice would you give to someone suffering from an eating disorder in Exeter?
‘First of all, I would talk to anyone you know you can trust and be as open as you can. As soon as you start being open about it, you start breaking down those barriers to begin recovery. Try as hard as you can to go to the doctors: you might not get the best first response but it’s all about building up resilience. Be persistent and keep going back, even if your eating disorder is telling you not to.
‘I’ve also discovered recently that forms of online treatment can also be good. I have an online nutritionist who actually suffered from an eating disorder in the past so I feel like I can trust everything she says. I was getting so tired about talking about my past in therapy, although it does really work for some people. With the nutritionist, it’s all about the changes I’m going to make for the future. That’s another thing as well: if you’re not happy with your treatment, try something different.’
Jen graduated from Exeter this summer with a first-class degree. She now works as a Market Researcher for company clients such as Innocent and Fever Tree in London.
Jen is still involved in Beat’s work because it is something she’s passionate about. ‘I sometimes worry that the eating disorder has become part of my identity because of my involvement with the society and Beat. But what I’ve realised is: the work that I’m doing for people with eating disorders has become part of my identity.‘
I want to thank Jen for her campaigning for better quality support and care at the University for all the people who have been effected by eating disorders. You are a true inspiration!
If you’re worried about yourself or others who may be showing signs of an eating disorder here are some useful resources:
* Exeter Beats Eating Disorders: https://www.facebook.com/ExeterBeatsEatingDisorders/
* Beat Eating Disorders: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
* Studentline: 0808 8010811. The website also has online support groups.
* Mind Your Head Society: https://www.facebook.com/Mindyourheadsociety/
* Student Minds: https://www.studentminds.org.uk
* Exeter Student Minds Eating Difficulties Support Project: https://www.facebook.com/exeterstudentminds/
* Nightline (7 days a week 8pm-8am) : 01392724000
* Wellbeing Services at the University: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/about/
* Student Health Centre Exeter: https://www.exeterstudenthealthcentre.co.uk