Nourishing Routes: how social entrepreneurs can transform our approach to wellness this mental health awareness week

Nourishing Routes: how social entrepreneurs can transform our approach to wellness this mental health awareness week

This article is written by Marissa Pendlebury, founder of social venture Nourishing Routes which was backed by UnLtd with funding and support


At a time when we appear to have more access to information than ever, individuals suffering from mental health issues continue to feel abandoned and alone. Not only that, but the digital worlds we spend our time in can trace a dark path of constant negative self-comparison – fearing that we are relative failures and unsuccessful beings who must work harder, slim down, eat clean, get fit and buy more in order to attain the things we all long for – real happiness, love, positive social connections and acceptance from others.

Not only that, but the workaholic , perfectionistic 120 mile an hour lifestyles many of us run can become a fast track route to increasing our chances of experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other various mental health problems. These all inevitably have serious consequences for individuals’ quality of life and those around them, as well as ginormous costs to society as a whole.

Unlike typical physical illnesses that are visible to even the untrained eye, getting help and venturing towards recovery from mental illness is not as linear or simple as going to a doctor or a hospital and getting an immediate appointment to fix a broken arm – where there are well known treatment pathways and medications involved.

Compared to most physical illnesses, which still tend to take priority over psychological problems, the pathways to recovery from mental illness are usually more timely, winding, up, down and unique to each individual. Because each person’s experience of mental illness is so unique, both physically and psychologically, this also means that there is no clear picture, understanding or definitive identification criteria for specific mental illnesses. Consequently, millions of individuals are left alone in the dark, either unaware that they are suffering, or unable to reach out for the support they need.

A prominent example of this is the 1.6 million individuals affected by eating disorders in the UK, less than a quarter of whom are currently able to access support.

The majority of these individuals don’t meet society’s typical stereotype of someone with an eating disorder (i.e. extremely thin or hardly eating), despite experiencing multiple life-limiting and threatening issues with their relationship with food and body, are not viewed as ‘ill enough’ for treatment. And yet, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (20%), and don’t just take the form of anorexia or bulimia nervosa.

Eating disorders, just like their sufferers, take multiple shapes, forms and sizes – and affect all age groups, genders, societal classes and ethnicities.

Eating disorders occur in the mind, not just the body, and absolutely anyone can suffer. Eating disorders are much more about how you think and feel about food and your body, regardless of weight and what you actually eat. If you have a little think about the many ways we view and talk about health currently, you might recall articles about ‘clean eating’, paleo, gluten free, intermittent fasting, slimming world, Slimfast, Weight watchers and, how could we forget, counting Calories. Not forgetting, the overwhelming attention the press places on obesity, despite research showing that it is a more complex problem that goes beyond ‘greediness’ or a lack of self-control and minimal exercise.

Even if you are someone who has had a healthy relationship with food for most of your life, the way we focus on, judge and criticise certain foods and body types has led to us becoming a food and fat phobic nation. The F in food now stands for Fear rather than Fun, even though food, at a fundamental level, is not just about nutrition, health and weight. Food literally binds us to our memories, culture and identities. By continuing to view food as fuel, a weight loss tool, and a stealthy path to enlightenment through having a ‘clean’, toned and streamlined body, then we get caught up in a web of negative self-judgement and guilt. Meanwhile, we lose the very fabric of life that makes us feel whole and connected to each other, our heritage and the planet.

If you still think i’m talking gobbledygook, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are comforting conversations with family or friends really the same without tea and biscuits?
  • Do you really want to walk along the seafront a superfood salad rather than your usual chips and mushy peas?
  • What would your childhood have been like without the occasional packet of sweets or Mr Whippy ice cream?
  • Do you really enjoy that sugar free, calorie counted cereal bar over a slice of Victoria sponge with your friend in your favourite cafe?

In other words, we could say that the majority of the diet and fitness industry, which we hastily waste over £2 billion on per year, is a humongous recipe for disaster – and disordered relationships with food and our bodies.

Unfortunately, despite living in an age where there is so much advancement in digital technologies and research into different health conditions and their relevant treatments, that related to eating disorders is still in its infancy. More worryingly, because the health, diet and fitness industry are interwoven through most individuals’ everyday lifestyles, noticing disordered eating habits and ways of thinking about our bodies becomes even harder to spot.

Regarding eating disorders specifically, in 2018, there is a severe shortage of inpatient treatment beds, while waiting times for an initial appointment with a specialised health professional are predominantly over six months. Also, the rooms where most treatments and therapies are conducted usually take place in a clinical setting – think whitewashed walls and unfriendly atmospheres that are not exactly encouraging of hope to recovery. Most individuals who have ever suffered from a mental illness and been accepted in to NHS or private care within the UK, including those with eating disorders, have described feeling uninspired by how their treatment takes place. Hope for a more colourful life is unlikely to be ignited in a clinically drab room, sparse of comfortable furnishings, artwork or even a warm smile.

For many individuals, the extensive times they wait for any form of psychological treatment is a death sentence that only serves to exacerbate their symptoms and, in some cases, encourages sufferers to take more drastic measures in order to be made a priority for support.

What does Nourishing Routes do?

Nourishing Routes was born out of a passion and mission to empower individuals with the information, self-compassion and tools to develop life long positive relationships with food, mind and body, while seeing their wellbeing as more than just a calorie count or number on a scale.

I founded Nourishing Routes following my own recovery from anorexia nervosa and research into nutrition, public health and psychology. Fundamentally, it is a compassion-centred organisation that provides recovery coaching, peer support, advice on eating disorders, public speaking and an eight-week online course.

This course, called the Compassioneer Academy, enables individuals to move away from disordered eating and learn to love food, adore their body and become their most authentic and best self. Courses like this have the power and potential to access anyone, anytime, anywhere, which helps massively to reduce inequalities in waiting times for support. Digital support also enables individuals to help them cope in everyday situations even when they have been discharged from services, helping to prevent rates of relapse, self harm and even mortality.

Thankfully, Nourishing Routes was recently awarded funding from UnLtd, which provides financial support to social enterprises across the UK to help build and grow their projects. The money is going to help expand the reach of Nourishing Routes, help with improving the technology being used, and allow it to flourish through social media and generating more awareness of the resources and support offered.

After spending many months and years in and out of depressing hospitals and clinically intimidating therapy rooms during my teenage and young adult life, I remember feeling hopeless and as though I would never get better. However, I was also certain that there must be something better and more compassion-centred than this to support recovery. I also knew that, aside from the black and white goals of nutritional rehabilitation, that I needed to go on my own colourful and compassionate journey to wellness that didn’t involve obsessing about weight, calories, strict routines and numbers. This sparked a mission to find out how I could potentially find out what this form of support could look like, and the evidence behind how it could work in practice.

Aside from learning everything I possibly could about psychology, nutrition, counselling and health at university, the real progress was made outside the classroom. Through using many of the support tools now offered through Nourishing Routes, I reclaimed back my life through practicing self compassion, social connection, yoga, practically challenging all of my fear foods, travelling, expressing creativity and understanding the value of peer support. Working with individuals who have also experienced and overcome an eating disorder can be a very powerful and empowering mode of support that not only provides tools and practical support, but also hope for a better life and full recovery.

I believe that we can all be experts by experience in our own recovery, no matter what mental health issue we have experienced ourselves, or from looking after others.

Through the avenues Nourishing Routes offers, I envision a society where individuals can reclaim their own recovery journey, and take their own unique paths to overall wellness. Instead of keeping things trapped within the depressing space of a clinical therapy room, they can allow recovery to encompass more evidence-based forms of wellbeing promoting activities that involve elements of self-compassion, creative expression, mindfulness, positive social connections, wholeheartedly enjoying food and being able to be comfortable with being their authentic self. These are all compassion-centred, and allow us all to become Compassioneers – individuals who realise that health and wellness is not defined by nutrition, weight or our appearance and status in society.

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