Ex-Emmerdale star: I was denied care for anorexia. No others should suffer the hell I had
Gemma Oaten is campaigning for change in assessing eating disorders
Now the former Emmerdale star, who was turned away from a clinic as a schoolchild aged 10, is backing a campaign to outlaw treatment decisions based on weight alone. The Sunday Express has highlighted the fact that thousands of people with eating disorders are being denied critical help by some hospitals and clinics which ration care to only those with a Body Mass Index below 15. “This has got to stop now. I lost 13 years of my life because I wasn’t low enough in weight,” says Gemma, who is backing the Dump the Scales campaign, which has won political support and has a 67,000-strong petition calling for change.
Gemma, now 34, almost died four times as her physical condition deteriorated and was on the brink of taking her life as she battled anorexia.
“My anorexia started at 10 years old,” she recalls. “There was no warning, it wasn’t a choice – one day my mind started thinking differently. I had always been so carefree and happy but it felt like everything changed overnight.
My parents were petrified as to what was happening to their once happy and healthy daughter so they took me to the doctors. I remember that day like it was yesterday and it was 24 years ago.
“I got on the scales, my weight was taken and my parents were told there was nothing they could do to help and not to worry as my BMI wasn’t low enough to cause real concern.
Gemma is supported by her mother Marge
“One year later I was admitted to a children’s psychiatric unit and told if I didn’t drink water, let alone eat, I would be dead in 24 hours.
“Thirteen years of my life lost because I wasn’t low enough in weight. Think on that…
“I nearly died four times and also contemplated suicide. My family went to hell and back because we didn’t get the help we needed when we asked for it. My eyes fill with tears as I think and talk about this.
“The guilt I feel for putting my family through that, the grief I feel for the years I lost and, ultimately, the anger I feel that this happened and still does.
“It’s time to change.”
Hull-born Gemma, whose parents Dennis and Marg formed the Seed eating disorders support charity, made an emotional appeal for better treatment and awareness at the start of Eating Disorders Week.
Around 1.25 million people in the UK are dealing with conditions such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, and treatment plans are supposed to take into account a range of physical and psychological factors.
However, author and campaigner Hope Virgo has exposed that many people are still denied medical and counselling support after being weighed only.
She says: “It is brilliant having role models like Gemma speaking out and using her platform to raise these issues. It helps others know that you can get to a positive place in your recovery but also that you can live a happy, fulfilling life.
“Anorexia has the potential to ruin lives but Gemma has shown the power of turning this round.
“If we don’t stop this practice then more people with disorders are going to be living with no life whatsoever. They are going to be left in the lurch with nothing and no one to support.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder – 20 per cent of sufferers die prematurely – and it has a devastating impact on the rest of the family.
“Early treatment can save lives and it’s also a cost-effective approach, aside from the ethical aspect.”
Hope, 28, who fought anorexia for a decade and wrote the book Stand Tall Little Girl about her experiences, adds: “The longer you leave an eating disorder, the harder it is to recover and these rejections on weight alone reinforce the stigma that you have to be stick-thin to have an eating disorder.”
The Department of Health and Social Care stresses that treatment decisions should be evidence-based and include patient input, while the Government has pledged extra funding for mental health services in its Long Term Plan for the NHS.
But Gemma, who has appeared in Holby City, several British films and as Emmerdale’s Rachel Breckle from 2011-2015, is demanding stronger action and greater awareness about the causes of eating disorders.
“The Government must review the clinical guidelines to help those with disorders,” she says. “A disorder doesn’t always have to be a person with low weight. There are so many kinds of eating disorders, with their own health risks.”
Gemma says bulimia alone can cause heart attacks and often you wouldn’t know someone is suffering by the way they look.
“An eating disorder isn’t about weight, it’s about thoughts and feelings. It’s a mental health illness.
“More and more people are being turned away from their GP because they aren’t low enough in weight to have a problem – this is terrifying!
“Early intervention is key when it comes to treating an eating disorder. When someone gets turned away, the illness develops. It doesn’t just magically stop. That person turned away may be dead in six months. That is the reality.”
Gemma became anorexic at just 10-years-old
Gemma also believes that blaming social media deflects from society’s ability to understand the mental health impact of an eating disorder.
“The fact that there is still a misconception that images cause a disorder boils my blood. I think what is fuelling it is lack of understanding and ignorance.
“An eating disorder is a mental health illness.
Not something that stems from an image they see. That view undermines and demeans any person going through an eating disorder.
“It’s just too easy to say social media is causing a rise in disorders.
“People need to be more aware and understand the depths this devastating illness runs. The rise is not caused by images, it is caused by a lack of help at the right time.
“Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness and yet we are still so far away from having the right treatment in place that is accessible to all.
“I was turned away and it caused untold damage. That should never happen again and we have to do everything we can to stop it.”
POSITIVE… Author and campaigner Hope Virgo fought anorexia for a decade
The Department of Health and Social Care has reminded hospitals and clinics to stick to recommended treatment guidelines.
It delivered extra training schemes in 2017 promoting a swift response when an eating disorder was suspected, and emphasising the importance of not using weight or BMI as the sole criteria.
It claims to be on track to treat 95 per cent of all urgent cases in children and young people within a week and non-urgent cases in four weeks by 2020/21.
For help, please visit seedeatingdisorders.org.uk.
To sign the Dump the Scales petition see: https://www.change.org/p/eating-disorders-are-not-just-about-weightdumpthescales