Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Week 2019


Last week was witness to a plethora of rich conversations led by the Mental Health Foundation about the intersection of body image and mental health. Hannah from our policy team reflects on how body image can impact people severely affected by mental illness and what we are doing about it…

Last week, the spotlight was on body image and how it can be seen as a public mental health issue. The Mental Health Foundation has highlighted how higher levels of body dissatisfaction can be related to anxiety, self-disgust and suicidal thoughts. Research in the field has also highlighted how it can be linked to risk-taking behaviours such as substance misuse and self-harm, as well as being a critical component to severe mental illnesses such as eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder.

Whilst eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder are conditions most commonly associated with body image, research also points to body image disturbances as “key schizophrenia symptoms and early disease predictors” (Sakson-Obada et al. 2018). Furthermore, links have been made between body image and borderline personality disorder, with people feeling “less comfort and trust in their own bodies” – often as a result of complex trauma (Dyer et al. 2013; Sansone et al. 2010).

With the case now made which demonstrates the link between mental illness and body image, Rethink Mental Illness is turning this awareness into action through a number of different ways:

School based interventions to raise awareness of body image and the relationship between mental health and mental illness

The Step-Up: Transitions project works with young experts-by-experience (Young Champions) to co-produce school-based interventions to offer evidence-based tips and  techniques which have been tried and tested by our Young Champions that a young person may experience. Our bespoke workshops cover a number of topics such as low mood, anxiety and exam stress. Last year, we ran a small pilot to co-create a workshop around body image and eating disorders, where 97.5%[1] of participants strongly/agreed with the statement: “I will use the things learned to help  find services that can help me if needed”.

The pilot also demonstrated how being involved in co-production projects was beneficial for the Young Champions themselves:

“The focus group made me recognise the importance of speaking about body image as opposed to acting on occasional negative urges, to give into the body image 'voice' that encourages restriction and other behaviours. It challenged the idea of why we become uncomfortable with ourselves, and others in the group were helpful in sharing tips with coping. Though my body image has been good for some time now, the project actually seemed to touch on the notion that it is a sliding spectrum that at times is unstable, and therefore pushed the need to look after yourself whilst having such sensitive conversations.” – Young Champion involved in the Step-Up: Body Image pilot