By Hope Virgo
1 in 4 of us has a mental health problem but the fact is we all have mental health issues in some way, shape or form. Whatever our gender, how much money we earn or things in our lives that make us happy does not stop us developing mental health issues and we have to recognise them when they strike and manage them on a daily basis. Mental health issues do not discriminate.
Having spent a year in a mental health hospital recovering from anorexia when I was 17 it was drummed into me the importance of talking about what I was going through.
After all meals we would have an eating disorder group to discuss the meal. It helped all of us remove all emotion from the meal. The techniques I learnt in hospital over 10 years ago now have helped me to manage my mental health and my recovery. It has also meant that for a lot of my friends they have it drummed into them that “Hope Virgo will always ask how they are feeling”. But the funny thing is and something that has become ever more apparent over the last year is that it is so easy, scarily easy to see the mask that so many people put on. I always knew people did this. I had done it for so many years. Living with my anorexia, hiding it, pretending I was fine. Although wearing a mask is tiring it sometimes seems like the easy option and the best option. Last year I met the extremely inspirational Adam Shaw and heard his story. Hearing his story reminded me that mental health really can affect anyone but also that it is nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t stop us succeeding at life. Following this I got a contract to write a book, ‘Stand Tall Little Girl’, for Trigger Press (a new mental health publisher).
It was at this point that I knew within six months I would have to be honest with people about my history of mental health issues and give up the intricate details that no one knew. So many responses were “but you are so bubbly” “how could someone like you who is so happy want to kill yourself?” “You can’t possibly have fat days that stop you leaving the house you are always so cheery…”
The mask people put on – terrifying eh?
Over the last year I have met a variety of people and heard their stories. Young, old, male or female, it has been inspiring (heart-breaking at times) hearing so many stories.
For both men and women there is still a definite stigma around mental health. There is a fear that if you admit you are not okay you will be fired or people will view you as unable to handle the challenges life throws at you. But the truth is just because we have a mental health problem doesn’t make us worse than anyone else. It doesn’t make us unable to live life to the fullest. It is great that Vent is allowing people to open up new conversations about mental health. Men opening up and talking about their mental health issues is a wonderful thing but the problem about eating disorders is that they are portrayed as an issue exclusive to girls. But why? Yes girls have fat days and historically have been portrayed as having body image issues. But this impacts men too! When I go to the gym the amount of men I see in there working out and reshaping themselves so they fit in more. I have met so many men since sharing my story that struggle with food and their appearance. Whether it’s anorexia, binge eating or bulimia: men can still get them.
As a society we must stop painting eating disorders as purely a feminine illness. Everyone has body image problems of their own and we must open up these conversations with our boys, our men and empower them to feel able to say – “I am not feeling good about my appearance today”. And when they do we must not laugh it off. But we must take it seriously! We must help make it okay to talk about male body image. Think how many lives we could save and the people we could help if we normalised these conversations!
In 2016, I had a relapse, the first one in nine years since coming out of hospital. I was struggling to come to terms with my grandma passing away and I began to shut out those around me. I didn’t feel able to talk to others. I felt guilty that I was relapsing after so long and I felt like I was letting down those round me. I was supposed to be better, I was supposed to be this strong person but at that point in life with that manipulative anorexic voice back in my head I was terrified. After reaching out for help and being told I wasn’t thin enough I nearly ended everything. I saw no way out and didn’t have the energy to fight back but after coming close to killing myself I reminded myself again to open up! I reminded myself about the power of talking. It was a hard year getting back on track but I managed it. Am I weak for relapsing? Am I weak for letting my mind wander to thoughts of suicide hundreds of times a day?
And you aren’t either! Even if you are a man you still feel things, just as much as me being a woman and your mental health needs looking after too.
If you are worried about someone or yourself please try and find the words to open up to someone. Conversations really do save lives and the power of a text saying you aren’t okay, or a message to a friend letting them know you are there for them will not only help us to normalise talking about mental health but it will save lives!
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. Men get eating disorders too and eating disorders can kill.
Hope Virgo is the author of Stand Tall Little Girl – Hope Virgo suffered with anorexia for 4 years, keeping it secret from her family and friends. But then, on 17th November 2007, Hope’s world changed forever. She was admitted to a mental health hospital. Her skin was yellowing, her heart was failing. She was barely recognizable. Forced to leave her family and friends, the hospital became her home. Over the next year, Hope faced the biggest challenge of her life. She had to find the courage to beat her anorexia. Hope now lives and works in London, runs marathons and has a keen interest in exercise and maintaining good mental health. Hope spends her time campaigning for mental health across the country and her mission is to make sure everyone feels able to talk about their mental health and to access the support they need. The story of Hope’s recovery will inspire countless others.