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“I see in my daily work how mental health research can reclaim lives”

A scientist describes her experience of eating disorders, anxiety and depression – and why she’s committed to helping others through mental health research.

I’m a scientist at one of the world’s leading universities, working at the forefront of mental health research. However, what many people don’t know is that I have my own experience of mental illness.

I struggled with eating disorders for fifteen years and have been living with anxiety and depression for more than twenty years.

I had my first in-patient treatment for anorexia at the age of 14.

Before anorexia took my mind off things, I had already suffered from anxiety and severe depression.

While my classmates sat their A-levels, I fought for my life, heavily underweight. When I returned to real life outside the hospital bubble, I started to develop bulimia. 

My experience shows how different mental health conditions can interact with each other. I feel sick when I’m anxious or experiencing panic attacks; I have neither appetite, nor energy to eat when I’m severely depressed; I eat more than I need to when I’m low or moderately depressed. The eating disorders made me fight with food intake while my psychiatric medication increases appetite. 

Partly because of these conditions affecting each other, it took ten years to find a combination of treatments that suited me, so I could finally begin to recover.

During this time, people accused me of not wanting to recover, of attention-seeking and of weaponising my disorders against my loved ones. I encountered the common misconception that as long as I am reasonably functioning, I can’t be suffering ‘that badly’.

Psychiatrists told me I must have used treatments incorrectly, which was why I wasn’t able to recover. My intellectual capabilities were denied and my academic aspirations discouraged because of my mental health struggles - or seen as the typical anorexic strive for perfectionism that needed to be wiped out. 

All of these accusations were hurtful and definitely did not help. As someone with depression, who lacked confidence and was self-destructive, getting this kind of outside perspective only aggravated the fight inside me.

I believe that a muddle of unfortunate incidents, plus a genetic/biological predisposition, have been the cause of my mental health struggles.

Growing up, I’ve never been convinced that I’m okay as the person I am. As a child and adolescent, I was intellectually under-stimulated and experienced rejection because of my academic interests, to the point where I concealed my capabilities and interests. 

I’ve always been a highly sensitive person and didn’t feel that other people could understand me in that sense. Other people’s feelings really affect me – even watching emotionally troubled people on TV – and I am also physically very sensitive to other stimuli, especially noise.

This leads to a constant feeling of being overwhelmed, that I tried to reduce with food. 

I think this is another reason it took me so long to recover – the treatments I was being prescribed didn’t target my specific needs.

I feel that the combination of being open about experiences of mental illness, together with new research, are changing the public’s attitudes towards mental health. However, so much still needs to change.

In an era of precision medicine and personalised treatment, the focus should be on funding research that enables us to prevent or specifically target individual trajectories like mine.

Today, I still live with depression and anxiety – but now I’m stronger and better equipped to deal with them.

Depression can make me feel like I don’t care about anything, while anxiety can make me care intensely about everything. Depression comes with a lack of energy to do anything, while anxiety leads to a constant state of alertness, so that I can’t sit still. Experiencing both ends of the continuum can be exhausting.

I am very grateful for the opportunities and the support I have in every aspect of my life. I have amazing people around me, who like the imperfect individual I am – and have taught me to prefer the authentic me. 

I enjoy my research because it challenges me intellectually, and because it gives me purpose – made more meaningful by my own mental health struggles. I see in my daily work how mental health research can reclaim lives. I want to conduct and advocate for research, and help transform what it means to experience mental illness for others and myself.

The image of a model has been used for this blog to protect the individual's identity.

Last updated: 29 August 2019

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