Royal Free campaign sheds light on ‘an isolating illness’

Samantha Swinglehurst lead nurse specialist practice and consultant Dr Darren Cutinha at CAMHS at th

Samantha Swinglehurst lead nurse specialist practice and consultant Dr Darren Cutinha at CAMHS at the Royal Free Hospital - Credit: Archant

An awareness campaign started by eating disorder patients at The Royal Free Hospital has been viewed by more than 1.7million Twitter users in three days.

The #FREEthebutterfly campaign marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2016

The #FREEthebutterfly campaign marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2016 - Credit: Archant

The campaign, marking Eating Disorders Awareness Week, has spread the slogan “FREEthebutterfly” across the Internet.

The Ham&High spoke to a 15-year-old campaigner and patient at the hospital’s specialist unit, whose name has been withheld to protect her privacy.

She said: “We started it to try to get rid of the misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. We want to educate people who think it is all about fashion or being skinny, that it is just a girl’s disease or that it is a choice.

“We want to turn negatives into positives and the symbol of the butterfly represents becoming something beautiful and flying away.”

The patient has been treated at the Royal Free since December 2014 and became an in-patient at the unit in October 2015. She is encouraged to spend most of her time at school or in her home but comes to the unit for meals.

She said: “The unit is a place I can talk about my eating disorder. It can be such an isolating illness and you can feel that you are having to cope with it all alone.”

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The unit serves six London boroughs and is one of the largest Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in the UK, with up to 11 referrals a week.

As well as treating patients, the unit provides workshops and lectures for parents and families to help them understand the illness.

One parent said: “When my daughter was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about eating disorders so I started searching online. The Internet is a double-edged sword because it can be really dangerous yet brilliant for spreading the message and educating people who may not understand. One of the things about having a child with an eating disorder is that it really challenges the link. The first thing you do when your child is born is feed them, it is at the very root of what you do as a parent.

“When your child becomes ill it feels out of your control but meeting other parents at workshops and learning from the hospital staff have definitely helped us come to terms with it.”

Dr Darren Cutinha, a consultant at the unit, said: “We get about 150 referrals per year on average and we aim to help our patients stay out of specialist units. We try as much as possible to engage with them creatively and give them the long-term skills to stay well for the rest of their lives.”

Lead nurse Samantha Swinglehurst, said: “We don’t push people to gain weight too quickly because there is no long term health benefit with doing that. We aim to have therapeutic relationships with the patients to help them to feel motivated and change their thoughts and feelings.

“We want the campaign to install hope, which is what we try to do every day with these families – we give them hope. The patients started this with a discussion over snack-time and now they have seen how far it has gone.

“What could be more amazing than that?”