In a series of profiles, we at MQ Mental Health Research would like to introduce to you some of our wonderful MQ Ambassadors. Representing our charity organisation, our ambassadors help to spread the message of what MQ does, why mental health research is so important and lend their voices of lived experience expertise of mental illness.

MQ Ambassador Hope Virgo, who is also an author and mental health campaigner, chatted to us to share her experience of mental health conditions and why she became interested in MQ Mental Health Research.


Hope, thank you so much for chatting with us. Firstly, what are your interests and favourite things about being alive?

I spend my time being a mum and a campaigner. I love going to the beach, travelling, meeting other people, sitting in the sunshine with the sun on my face and hearing people’s stories.  


What mental health conditions have you been diagnosed with?

Anorexia nervosa. I have been in active recovery for 15 years.  


Could you please give a summary of your lived experience of mental illness?

I developed anorexia when I was 13 years old. I was hospitalised at the age of 17 for a year and have been in ongoing recovery since.

I have had ups and downs in that time but am now in a good space. I know what I need to do to stay well and how to manage my well-being moving forward but some days are still hard. 


When did you first experience symptoms of mental health distress? What were those symptoms?

When I was 13 years old, I felt wrong in myself. I had been sexually abused and was struggling with the emotions around that. I began to restrict what I ate and I began to realise when I did it, I felt better. 

I ended up being admitted to an inpatient unit when I was 17 years old. This inpatient stay saved my life, but I wasn’t fully recovered when I left treatment and a lot of work still needed to be done. I have been in ongoing recovery since then.

I have moments that are good and moments that are hard. I do believe everyone can make a full recovery.


What do you understand about the causes of your condition?

I used to think it was because of the abuse, but now I know it was a genetic predisposition with a trigger of the abuse and other factors in life. It’s been amazing seeing more research come out about eating disorders and especially anorexia. This has certainly helped me to understand myself and my recovery more.  


What treatment have you received?

A year in hospital and then some CBT and talking therapy. One of the issues with eating disorder treatment is there isn’t a huge amount of evidence-based therapy out there so it means finding support and treatment that works can be challenging. 


What stigma have you faced?

I spent much of my adult life not looking like I had anorexia. This caused me to be turned away from services when I relapsed, but also has often meant people don’t fully understand it. 

People so much of the time thinking eating disorders are about food, or exercise or because you want to look a certain way, but this is not right. They are really complicated mental illnesses and we need to ensure that people stop stigmatising them.  


What misconception are you most annoyed by about your illness/mental illness in general? Why do you think it persists? 

That eating disorders have one look or that someone will just grow out of them. I think we still think of eating disorders as something that only impacts white, underweight teenage girls, and it is this misconception that fuels so much shame across society. It stops people being able to get support and treatment, but I also think it stops the amount of funding services get. Even the government probably look at people thinking it’s “a silly girl’s vanity exercise” without understanding fully the extent of it.  


What do you do day to day or week to week to better manage your symptoms and mental well-being? 

For me, over a decade on, I am in a state of on-going recovery. I believe I am so close to being fully well but a lot of it now is me doing my own work to get to that point. As part of this I have had to develop my own coping mechanisms but make sure that I am always eating through whatever is going on for me.

I challenge a lot of my beliefs around food, and if I have a fear about a certain food, I make myself eat it. This is key for me in rewiring my brain. I also am mindful of what content I look at online, surround myself with the right people and make sure that I have space to communicate.

Whilst my eating disorder was never about body image, I know that when things are emotionally harder, my body image seems to get caught up in that. Because of this, I make sure I am aware of triggers, predict how my brain will respond, and ensure that I am keeping my hygiene up and getting dressed too.

With eating disorders, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all treatment or management of recovery, so working out what works for us throughout is essential. 


How did recent years affect your mental health, your life, your symptoms and management of your condition? 

For me the pandemic did impact my mental health with the uncertainty and fears I felt. I knew up until this point I had been in a period where I had settled in my recovery, and I had to start challenging behaviours.

When things felt hard, I went back to the basics, created a new routine so I was having enough to eat, had regular check ins with my husband and focussed on my reasons for wanting to get well. For me a lot of my recovery has been about finding a way to embrace the pain of it.

I also found it quite hard when the world began to open up again. I had got so used to being just me, my partner and a finite number of people that being out in the world again was challenging. I had to find a way to deal with eating out, challenge myself and at the same time go at a pace that worked for me. 


What have you noticed about other people’s mental well-being during recent years? 

There has been a huge rise in the number of people affected by eating disorders over the last few years, and we know that in some situations the pandemic added to this. It created a time of sheer uncertainty and in some ways the perfect storm for eating disorders.

On top of that the cost-of-living crisis has had hugely negative impacts on people. I think more broadly people struggled through the pandemic, and we know we are in a time where we need to help people repair. 


What needs to change in society when it comes to mental well-being or mental illness? 

We need to talk about it more and have a proper action to tackle the rise of eating disorders. We need adequate, ring-fenced funding for all services and areas. We need proper support across the board for every single person. We need to make sure money is going into research so we can find the best treatments.  


Why does mental health research matter? 

Because we need to find the best treatment for those with mental illnesses. With eating disorders, we are massively lagging behind on treatments and understanding the illness.  


How did you get involved with MQ? Why did you become an ambassador for us? 

I have always been fascinated by research and fascinated why I had anorexia over my other siblings, since I am 1 of 5 children.

For me supporting MQ was a no brainer. I wanted to support an organisation that was looking at the science behind mental illness. For too long we have ignored research and the importance of it. 


Our thanks to Hope for sharing her story, highlighting just why research matters for mental health and why the work MQ Mental Health Research does must continue.



The post MQ Ambassador profiles: meet Hope Virgo first appeared on MQ Mental Health Research.

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