Mental health gains strength with young woman's Walk and Talk initiative at Cronulla

Strong-willed: A battle with mental illness and a desire to help other people has put Brianna Urquhart back on track. Picture: Chris Lane
Strong-willed: A battle with mental illness and a desire to help other people has put Brianna Urquhart back on track. Picture: Chris Lane

Looking at her reflection, Brianna Urquhart did not see what others saw – a strong and determined young woman. She felt broken and unhappy.

At 23 years of age, she was told by doctors that she was eight times more likely to die than an 80 year-old with a heart condition. 

The primary school teacher from Burraneer Bay suffered from body dysmorphia, a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that involves a preoccupation with perceived or imaginary defects in physical appearance.

Things started to go downhill for Ms Urquhart late last year. She developed an eating disorder, which led to anxiety and depression, and dropped to a low of 34 kilograms – a far cry from her previous weight of about 56 kilograms.

“I was at my worst in 2018,” she said. “I wasn’t able to walk properly because I lost feeling in my right leg. I was on death’s door. I wasn’t enjoying my life.”

People who have the condition tend to repetitively fuss over their body image, and they become self-conscious, leading to an obsession with trying to ‘fix’ the way they look.

“I was exercising in excess,” Ms Urquhart said. “I was a distance runner, had done a half-marathon, and I’ve got quite an addictive personality. I was fixated on giving myself unrealistic goals. I wasn’t satisfied unless I ran at least 20 kilometres every week.”

Fighter: Brianna Urquhart says she was "at her worst" in 2018, when her weight dropped dangerously low.

Fighter: Brianna Urquhart says she was "at her worst" in 2018, when her weight dropped dangerously low.

Not made easier by filter-soaked social media platforms, the strive for perfection burst at point when she realised an inner strength – to help others.

“I’ve never been an outgoing person – I was quite shy. But I kind of got lost in thinking I needed to look a certain way,” Ms Urquhart said.

“In our society it’s so easy for someone to develop a mental illness because you are bombarded with an ‘ideal’ look – that got to my head.

“But it’s important for people to know they are not alone and that they can feel comfortable in sharing their experiences.”

Every Sunday at 9am, Ms Urquhart can be found at Oak Park at Cronulla, where she meets whoever wants to join her for a stroll. It’s about encouraging others – sometimes just a couple of people – to chat openly about their struggles.

“Mental illness is an ongoing battle – it doesn’t go away. It’s just your abiltiy about how you make yourself stronger from it,” she said.

“It’s about knowing that it’s OK not to be OK. It’s something that really helped me – being able to relate to others.

“I also want to reach out to school kids and let them know how valuable a small conversation can be.”

In December the federal government announced an amendment to the Medicare Benefits Scheme to improve access and affordability of appropriate eating disorders treatment across Australia.

The new scheme will commence on November 1, 2019, and will include a dedicated single Medicare Benefits Scheme item number for eating disorder treatment for those with severe and complex illness, delivering up to 60 Medicare funded sessions of treatment – 40 psychotherapeutic and 20 dietetic across the range of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and atypical presentations.

Butterfly Foundation chief executive Christine Morgan said the national recognition was long-awaited.

“[It] makes history for those battling eating disorders,” she said. “Families, carers and clinicians have worked tirelessly for many years to advocate for national health system reform for public and private health treatment for eating disorders.” 

  • If you need help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, call Butterfly Foundation’s national helpline on 1800 334 673 or email support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

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