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Rock Bottom to Mental Health Campaigner

Bio: Hope Virgo is the Author of Stand Tall Little Girl, and an international multi award winning leading advocate for people with eating disorders. Hope helps young people and employers (including schools, hospitals and businesses) to deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. She has been described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital, as "sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact". Hope is also a recognised media spokesperson, having appeared on various platforms including BBC Newsnight, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.

For four years, Hope managed to keep it hidden, keeping dark secrets from friends and family. But then, on 17th November 2007, Hope's world changed forever. She was admitted to a mental health hospital. Her skin was yellowing, her heart was failing. She was barely recognizable. Forced to leave her family and friends, the hospital became her home. Over the next year, at her lowest ebb, Hope faced the biggest challenge of her life. She had to find the courage to beat her anorexia.

I met Anorexia when I was just 13 years old. She came to me slowly but surely in the dead of the night. Sucking me in. Reassuring me. She took away all the pain I was feeling holding me tight. Over the next four years I managed to hide this from everyone around me. It became my coping mechanism to life. It was everything I needed it to remove me from the reality of life. What I didn’t know over this period in my life was the dangerous aspects of anorexia. Sucking me in each day, those feelings of validation all of which were short lived. Little did I know that aged 17 I would be standing in a hospital doorway, tears streaming down my face being admitted with a failing heart.

That year in hospital was the hardest year of my life but during my recovery it sparked something more in me. This need to help others. I had had this in me for years (since I had sat in hospital with my older brother whilst he had had his appendicitis out at the age of 13). I knew that at some point in my life I would want to help others in some setting. When I left hospital I wasn’t entirely sure what this would look like so I went to University and carried on through education.

Life carried on pretty plain sailing after this and whilst I would always want to care for others I no longer had that desperation to go into services to change practise. Not until 2016 when I was turned away from services for not being “thin” enough.

What I had never really taken in seriously in my recovery from anorexia was the potential to relapse. I thought that after a year travelling and five plus years out of hospital I was fully recovered. I didn’t talk about my anorexia to anyone. It was something that had happened a life time ago. Or so I thought… My anorexia lay dormant (so to speak), until my Grandma passed away and then the anorexia did what it did best. Slowly but surely trying to suck me back in. Puling me in each day telling me that if I ate less or exercised more this whole thing would be okay. Rather frustratingly I let it suck me back in. Longing for those feelings of pain and emptiness to just go. I was desperate for something else and I thought anorexia would fill that hole.

After a few months of struggling again, my Mum came to see me and we ended up talking openly about what was going on. I knew at this point that I really needed help to stop it escalating further. I went to my GP and then ended up with a referral. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t underweight there wasn’t anything that the hospital could do for me. I really struggled after that appointment with my mood.

After a tough year of getting back on track and focusing on myself, I did pull through my relapse. Whilst I am in a state of ongoing recovery from my anorexia I now use my story and experience to champion the rights of others.

First I had to get over the stigma that is often associated with mental illness. For me sharing my story publically felt like a massive risk. I was terrified of what people would think and say. Even today I do occasionally worry as we live in a society where yes we are making progress with mental health but there is still a long way to go.

As part of my work I set up the #DumpTheScales Campaign, a national campaign calling on the Government to tackle diagnosis around eating disorders. I was inspired to set up this campaign after I began sharing my story and I realised that people with eating disorders are being turned away from services all the time. People have this huge misunderstanding that eating disorders are about weight and that you can judge the severity of an eating disorder on someone’s weight. This means so many are not accessing services because they aren’t “thin” enough. I was so desperate to change this so I set up the campaign and have spent the last year working with the Government. Not only am I raising awareness but the hardest part has been educating people on eating disorders and helping to change this misunderstanding.

The campaign goes wider than looking at the Governmental aspect and is about ensuring that we can see our self-worth out of the scales.

It has been hard at times sharing my personal story of recovery and campaigning on these issues alone but I wouldn’t change it ever. I have gone from being embarrassed about my story to changing understanding and practise.

If you have been through a mental illness know that you can be in an amazing place to make long term policy change.

People often ask me what advice I would give to my younger self and it is simple. Talk! Find someone to speak to and know that that will help. For so long I spent time trapped in my own brain. Unable to voice the words that I so wanted to say. I didn’t know how to talk about what I was going through and was terrified of doing that. I was terrified of judgement, of losing friends around me so I kept everything hidden. Keeping my mouth shut meant that I ended up in hospital. You might think this is extreme but it can happen to anyone so please please talk! And if you are supporting someone who is struggling, or you are concerned about someone please do say something. Again this can be hard but direct conversations really can save lives.

If you don’t know where to start, be direct, and then check in with them. Make sure you always have a plan in place for following up with individual. And remember that just because someone looks okay it doesn’t mean they are!

Check out Hope's website and follow her on Twitter

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