Emily* is trying to get a mortgage and buy a house with her husband, but her credit has been damaged by over a decade of eating disorders that, at one point, got her £15,000 in debt. "Finally, I was able to save some money and tackle them but my credit rating, to this day, is rubbish," says the 27-year-old veterinarian who, now fully recovered, is still dealing with the financial aftermath of her mental illness.
At 14, Emily was first diagnosed with anorexia, then had bulimia for many years as well as a binge eating disorder, too. Despite not being spoken of as much, these latter two are the most common eating disorders. Both, of course, involve regular episodes of compulsive overeating, called binges.
"With bulimia and binge eating, you’re spending a crazy amount of money on food, sometimes up to £100 a day," Emily explains. "I had credit cards and other loans, so I got into a lot of debt." Being ill caused her to miss days at work and lose jobs over the years, leaving her unable to make minimum credit card payments, which resulted in more fees and charges.
Desperate to get better, she also spent a lot on private healthcare. "I went to a couple of different private rehabs because what the NHS offers is just not enough. Sometimes, you get like six months or a certain number of sessions of counselling or therapy, and then they'll just cut you off," she says. It’s a vicious cycle that sees people who are unwell borrow money to access private treatment not only to get better, but with the added hope of reducing their spending, too. "You think of all the things you got in debt for: I didn’t buy anything fancy, I didn’t buy any amazing trips, I just bought food, I mean, it’s so depressing," Emily says.
Unfortunately, this is quite a common scenario. "I find binge eating disorders are particularly not well addressed within the NHS, and people want treatment but can't necessarily afford it," says consultant clinical psychologist Julia Coakes. Sometimes, they end up without any help, stuck in a miserable cycle that keeps robbing them of their health and money. And it’s not only the binges, as she explains: "With bulimia, [they] may need to get a plumber in because the toilet might become blocked [from purging]." A lot of people have at least one gym membership, as they try to manage their feelings through exercise. Some buy laxatives or dangerous diet pills online, and the way the internet works doesn’t help. "People can choose to have helpful or unhelpful Instagram and Facebook [accounts] but the adverts you can't control, and the adverts are often related to what you bought," Coakes points out. If you’re struggling, that sponsored post pushing some random 'fit tea' may look dangerously tempting.
In the UK, approximately 1.25 million women and men have an eating disorder and, according to the National Centre for Eating Disorders, one in two people who seek help for weight loss overeat compulsively – that would be 12 million people in the country. Hospital admissions for anorexia and bulimia are at an all-time high as people struggle to get early treatment, eventually becoming so unwell that they need to be hospitalised.
Many look for help in the private sector but Coakes, herself a private practitioner, breaks it down: a psychologist is typically £100 per weekly session, and you might want to see a dietician as well, for about £90. At the beginning of therapy, when you're trying really hard but things aren't working, you could spend another £300-400 on binges still, and about £60-70 on the gym, monthly. There are lower-cost treatment options, like group therapy or guided self-help, but it’s still way more than most people can afford.
Part of the financial burden of an eating disorder is often placed on families, for an average loss of £32,000 from lack of income and extra expenses, as reported by the national charity Beat. But even with the help of a good support network, stigma, shame and guilt prevent money issues from being openly addressed between partners, with relatives, among friends and even, sometimes, in therapy, heightening the distress.
"I didn't tell people. I mean, I remember my mum saying to me, 'I’m gonna give you this £20 but I’d be really upset if you buy binge food with it,' and then I realised that people knew that that's where my money was going," says Ellie, a 31-year-old from Sheffield who has been dealing with anorexia and bulimia since the age of 17. "[Because of my mental health] I haven't held a job down for more than six months in my adult life," she admits. She’s now working for the first time in three years.
Ellie believes the public doesn’t really know much about eating disorders, let alone the financial stress they put people under. They often barely know what anorexia is, to be honest: "People think it will be cheap, they think: 'Oh, you don’t eat, it’s cheaper.'" Except it isn’t.
When she was younger, her parents had to front the huge cost of a private counsellor and a daycare facility, before the NHS took her on. And even then, money continued to be a struggle. "When I was restricting, I would only eat certain foods and they weren't cheap foods," she explains. Then there was all the bingeing and the drugs. "I had problems with laxatives, and I was spending £80 a week on them, at one point."
Now, in recovery, Ellie has to eat nutritious foods that are often pricier; she can't save money by buying multiple packs, as having them around the house might set off a binge. There’s a lot of shame going around. "You don't want to admit to people why you're in debt because it means you're greedy, you’ve eaten all that food or whatever," she says.
Sometimes, the pressure becomes so overwhelming that it triggers suicidal thoughts. "You're like, 'This is why I would be better off dead because I can't even afford to have my eating disorder,'" Ellie admits. And this is why it is so important to take the financial consequences of these mental illnesses seriously. They need to be acknowledged, talked about and tackled with better support. People desperately want to get better but find themselves trapped in habits that keep them ill, in a downward spiral of hopelessness they do not deserve.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please know that you can find help for both the financial and medical sides. Go to your GP and talk to them. You might ask someone you trust to go with you, if you’re worried or scared. Get in touch with the Citizens Advice Bureau for advice and support with any financial difficulty, as eating disorder charity Beat suggests, and don’t forget that the charity’s helpline is available all year round via phone, email, anonymous one-to-one webchat or social media.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year. If you are struggling with debt, find access to a free, non-judgemental debt advisor at the Money Advice Service.
*Name has been changed to protect the subject's identity