Working for a healthy link to food

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat - Credit: Archant

When a supermodel seems to be starving herself, or a soap opera has an anorexia storyline, the phone rings in Norwich, where national eating disorders charity Beat is marking its 25th anniversary.

Beat chief executive Susan Ringwood with young ambassador Amy Sheen at the charity's Norwich headqua

Beat chief executive Susan Ringwood with young ambassador Amy Sheen at the charity's Norwich headquarters. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Bill Smith - Archant

Her words have been used by charge nurse Charlie in TV's Casualty and her real-life quotes had been used by newspapers in Abergavenny and New Zealand.

Susan Ringwood is chief executive of Beat, the national eating-disorders charity based in Norwich.

From an office overlooking a KFC, she talks to government ministers, international decision makers, television script writers – and people struggling with some of the most serious and pernicious mental health issues around.

If a supermodel makes an ill-judged comment about being ultra-thin she can be plunged into a whirl of back-to-back interviews, with the resulting sound-bites and quotes reaching around the world. If a soap opera has a storyline involving eating disorders, she will often be consulted.

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Beat, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, is the biggest eating disorders charity in the world.

It was founded in 1989 as the Eating Disorders Association by the amalgamation of three regional charities, including one run in Norwich.

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The national headquarters moved to Norwich and have been here ever since – believed to be the only national charity based in the city.

Susan joined Beat as chief executive almost 12 years ago.

Born and brought up in South Creake, she went to school in Dereham before studying at Leicester University. She worked for charities ranging from the Prince's Trust to Age Concern but wanted to return to Norfolk.

Her work has ranged from presenting horse-racing trophies to an Arab prince to talking to people in deep distress. The episode of Casualty she advised on won an award. 'Charge Nurse Charlie spoke some of my lines!' she said. She has also helped script writers on EastEnders and The Archers.

However, the vast majority of Beat's work is with people suffering from the eating disorders anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. There is also support for people in emotional distress through being overweight.

But Susan says there are still people who don't know where to turn for help.

She said eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness, and the number of people being admitted to hospital is increasing.

'People are still dying. Nobody needs to do die of an eating disorder,' she said. 'And people shouldn't need to get so ill that they need to go to hospital. It could be more people getting ill, or it could be people becoming more ill before they get help.'

And she said there is a vicious circle involved with an illness which affects the way sufferers think. '

It's a mental illness. It affects your brain. Starvation affects your brain too, but you need that brain to work your way out of the illness and recover.'

They are not pretending to be fat, or terrified of food, it's their real experience. It's hard for the rest of us to see it this way. In the same way we don't say to people with schizophrenia, stop hearing things. It's not real.

However, the news is not entirely bleak.

Talking therapies, with a psychologist or psychiatrist, have the best success and Susan believes that anyone unfortunate enough to become ill now is more likely than ever before to recover, particularly if help is sought quickly.

'Over the next 25 years I think we will understand much more about causes and I think they will lead to many more effective treatments,' she said. 'We don't yet fully understand everything that leads to an eating disorder but we are finding out that it is much more biological than we thought. There is a genetic factor, something in some people's brain chemistry which makes them more at risk, and more vulnerable to social and environmental pressures.

'Now we can only tell who has been at risk once they develop an eating disorder. But we do know that helping people be emotionally resilient, have positive self-esteem and confidence in themselves can reduce the risk, and every one of us can benefit from that.'

She said one way parents can help make their children more resilient is to not criticise their own looks. 'Little girls are like sponges around their mums,' she said. And there is a constant battle against a culture of celebrating very thin body shapes – in magazines and on websites, some of which are designed to goad victims towards further weight loss.

'People see pictures of emaciated bodies and think I could do that,' said Susan. 'They are trying to be the best possible anorexic. Others think they can't have an eating disorder because they don't look like that.'

One of the most astonishing calls she fielded was from a film-maker hoping to source emaciated extras for a film about the holocaust.

When Princess Diana talked about her eating disorder for the first time it immediately triggered a huge increase in calls to Beat. The Princess later visited the charity's Norwich headquarters.

More recently John Prescott spoke of his battle with bulimia and the charity received 10 times as many calls from men as normal.

'People are still very reluctant to talk about it. They feel stigmatised and ashamed. They still feel it's their fault and that they deserve the pain,' said Susan.

But, in its 25th year, the message from Beat is upbeat. Although more people are going to hospital, more people should recover.

'It's not your fault; don't be so hard on yourself; and be realistic in your goals and aspirations,' said Susan.

Tomorrow meet some of the people helping Beat beat eating disorders. The illness robbed Danielle of four years of her childhood, wrecked Amy's career hopes and struck when Beth was about to qualify as a doctor. Read how Beat has helped all of them.

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