The Future and Why Eating Disorders Charities are so Special

SWEDA’s CEO Paula Blight talks in-depth about the challenges of running one of the largest eating disorder charities and why regional charities have never been so ‘needed’.

Early intervention is key

Somerset & Wessex Eating Disorders Association specialise in working with people who have eating problems at a sub-clinical level and who might otherwise not be offered any kind of help. We know that there is specialist NHS treatment for people who are very sick from an eating disorder, but there is very little help available for people who are not sick enough to attract a diagnosis of an eating disorder but who, nevertheless, are at risk and in distress. As a charity, we recognise that early intervention is key in preventing people developing a severe and enduring eating disorder. We know that the earlier the intervention, the more likely it is that someone will make a full recovery. This is why, at SWEDA, we are also interested in the precursors to eating disorders, such as body image concerns. 

It's been a busy time

Demand for people seeking help and support with an eating disorder has never been higher. Since the relaunch of SWEDA services, with a generous grant from The National Lottery back in 2015, demand is on the increase. Paula explains, “We were experiencing 20%, 30% year-on-year growth during this 5-year period, which is large for any charity. Then, the Pandemic hit in 2020, then demand went stratospheric (150% on pre-pandemic numbers) and it doesn’t look like slowing any time soon.” Paula continues, “Year on, SWEDA has experienced huge growth in demand for its service offering and experiencing an ever-increasing younger demographic.” During this period, Paula and her growing team have focused on quality, expanding its service offering in-line with demand which also included launching a specialist children and young people service, with the support of Children In Need, expanding its services up to Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire, and talks with regards to expanding into other areas - a very busy time. That knowledge, experience and quality offering has paid dividends, not only with the funders, who want to invest in SWEDA, but also for its recognition for its exceptional innovative work during the pandemic - SWEDA became a winner of the prestigious GSK Awards in 2021.

A new alliance

Paula Blight has been with SWEDA for over 18 years now and has experienced the lows and recent extreme highs of running this specialist mental health charity. The problems, explains Paula is, “over the years there has been a lack of understanding and support for people and their families experiencing eating disorders and, as regional charities desperately trying to keep up with demand, we never promoted our work for fear of not meeting demand.” Unsurprisingly too, there has also been a lack of financial support or continued funding and for the limited number of specialist eating disorders charities around the country and without this financial support, many have found it difficult to survive. The ones that have, Paula has gathered together and recently founded REDCAN – Regional Eating Disorders Charity Alliance and Network so they can work together and hopefully better influence the need to have services within that middle ground of disordered eating, which are vital to prevent people experiencing a full-blown eating disorder, which do cause a great deal of distress and considerable cost to the NHS. As a specialist body of eating disorder charities, we are particularly keen to work with the NHS, supporting them with their transformation of mental health services across England in the specialist stream for eating disorders. REDCAN is due to launch during Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW) this year, 2023.   

Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Annually, EDAW has a particular theme and SWEDA was pleased to hear this year’s focus is on Men & Boys. A demographic which is often forgotten where eating disorders are concerned and one which has experienced huge discrimination over the years so it’s great to have this focus for 2023. Were also pleased to report that SWEDA is ahead of the curve on this subject and, during the autumn, SWEDA carried out a survey on this subject across the Somerset colleges during Freshers Week. SWEDA’s survey is largely about how men and boys view themselves and their bodies and what they think about exercise. In men, the Western culture’s body ideals are quite different from those for women. Whereas for women, thinness is highly valued, for men, a muscular yet lean shape is the ‘desirable’ body shape to have. This can mean that eating problems in men can manifest differently. SWEDA asked five questions to men and boys across a range of age groups and asked them to pick the response that most closely matched their answer. We wanted the survey to be quick and easy for participants, whilst still enabling to get a snapshot of what they were thinking and feeling about their bodies.  Some interesting findings from this large sample of Somerset young men. For more on this, please do follow this link.

With growing demand, more people find themselves needing support with eating disorders. SWEDA is gaining traction with its excellent work and leadership across this specialist mental health field nationally.

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