Drawing on her experience as an inpatient at a specialist eating disorders unit near Cambridge, 23-year-old Sky has become a passionate advocate for Cambridge Children’s vision of integrated care – where a child’s mental and physical health are treated together.
“I think it’s an awesome idea to have everything in one place, especially for children and young people with eating disorders,” says Sky, who grew up in Essex. “The physical consequences can be huge. Your vital signs can get dangerously low and long term you can get difficulties, like osteoporosis. Personally, I got scoliosis. So, it’s not just mental health.”
Being able to have a clinician treat you from your bed, rather than being transferred to a physical health hospital, could make a huge difference, Sky believes.
Self-harming can be quite common in some mental health units and the need to leave for treatment somewhere else can be traumatizing for the young person being moved and the other patients who might witness it.
Sky finds it hard to pinpoint what triggered her own eating disorder, but feels that lots of factors can play a part, such as family tragedies and unsettled home lives. She also feels that social media can be a factor. “Images and misinformation on dieting is everywhere and can romanticise the condition,” says Sky. “There might also be lots of academic pressure at school. Many young people with eating disorders have perfectionist attitudes.”
At first Sky was supported in her community, but, because she continued to struggle, she was later referred to hospital. She prefers not to talk numbers, but she unwell physically as well as mentally.
“It can be a shock being admitted as an inpatient, particularly if you feel you're still functioning well in school or work. It can be difficult to recognise how sick you are.”
Almost four months later, Sky was discharged. She had a better understanding of her condition and had developed coping strategies, although she says her eating disorder is something she continues to live with.
Since joining Cambridge Children’s Network in early 2021, Sky has been an active member of the monthly design workshops, joining other young people and the design team to think about how the hospital might look, feel and care.
Sky believes integration will help reduce the stigma around mental health conditions, but there will be important points to consider and she has raised these with the design team. For example, sharing dining and kitchen spaces with other children, young people and families would pose huge challenges for eating disorder patients.
“The kitchen can be the worst place in the entire ward for someone with an eating disorder. It’s where all the stress is,” says Sky. “Having people just walk into a dining room or a kitchen where you’re struggling to eat a meal could feel so invasive, particularly if you’re upset or distressed.”
Sky has recently completed her training to become a mental health nurse, with her first job already secured in London. Her dissertation, about the impact of peer support between adolescents with eating disorders, received a first!
However, despite the excitement of starting her new role, Sky will continue to support the Cambridge Children's Hospital project.
I’d never really thought about the idea of bringing mental and physical health together, but it’s such a good idea and being involved in something as exciting as this is really cool.