By Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner

Eating disorders affect over 1.25 million people a year in the UK, but arguably this statistic is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a more accurate portrayal of numbers.

What we do know, though, is that over the last year we have seen an increase in the number of people struggling with food.

Figures from NHS Digital 2019 show that the number of people seeking hospitalisation for an eating disorder rose by 37% in the two years previous, with even more individuals struggling to access treatment.

An eating disorder is a serious mental illness and often side-lined with a huge lack of understanding. People assume they are a lifestyle choice or a diet gone wrong. This is something that is coming up more often, not just when people try and access treatment but in wider settings.

I spend my days fighting to end the injustices of people with eating disorders and pretty much talk to anyone about eating disorders who will listen (and yes that includes people in shops, or on trains pre-Covid time…). But something came to my attention recently with regards to Covid-19 and the vaccination roll out.

The national Covid-19 vaccine guidance for severe mental illness includes people “with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or any mental illness that causes severe functional impairment”. But we need to ask ourselves if this properly takes into account people with eating disorders.

People who in some cases are in denial, driven by perfectionism, function at a high level whilst the illness takes over. And how would we judge this, on immune system? BMI? Whether someone has an eating disorder diagnosis? But it’s not clear how this would actually work in reality when, we know in so many places, individuals never get that diagnosis.

As I have watched this unfold across social media since The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) published their guidance earlier this year, we have heard mixed messaging on eating disorders and Covid vaccines, with some people being accepted by their GP and others turned away. This constant yo-yo-ing and flip-flopping is causing a huge amount of harm for those with eating disorders. Not only does it create fear, but it causes an increase in comparisons with those who perhaps have already had the vaccine.

There has not been enough research done to find out whether people with eating disorders are more at risk of Covid-19, but I couldn’t help but see another injustice that people are facing here.

Picking and choosing what we class as a severe mental illness and eliminating eating disorders within this is an injustice in itself. It was something that came up at the start of Covid-19 when people were unable to get their “safe” foods, when they felt overwhelmed with going to supermarkets and weren’t able to have that safe space to shop. But this goes way beyond the vaccination roll out, and is something which is fundamentally wrong with society and our understanding of eating disorders: that we still often think of them as a choice.

Surely an illness with the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric condition, and one that is completely life consuming, is enough to classify it as a severe mental illness?

I believe that if we bring eating disorders into the category of severe mental illness (and please remember this is my personal view), it will help us take one more step in the right direction to ensure that people with eating disorders get the treatment they need.

This is an issue that goes way beyond just the vaccine. It goes back to the core of the issue, those foundations that create and perpetuate the myths about eating disorders.

Our guest blogs share the experience and views of the authors; these views are not necessarily those of Equally Well UK