'A GP once told me to lock her in her room' - mum of 21-year-old who died after bulimia battle vows to improve services
The mother of a Co Down woman who died after struggling with bulimia has hit out over the lack of mental health services available for young people in Northern Ireland.
Sophie Bridges (21), a past pupil of Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch, died from a heart attack on Saturday evening after struggling with the eating disorder since 2009.
Sharon Bridges said the family were "numb with grief", and called for improved access to mental health care.
"Since she started suffering it really never got any better for her, so sadly we knew it might happen, but always hoped it wouldn't," Mrs Bridges said.
"Bulimia affects the potassium levels in the body and the heart just doesn't have the energy to beat."
Sophie spent her last six months living in the family home in Killyleagh.
Inspired by her many hospital admissions, she dreamed of helping others by training as a nurse.
A statement from her old school said she would be remembered as "a bright and beautiful girl who was always kind and sensitive to others".
A family notice described her as the "dearly-loved daughter of Raymond and Sharon, and much-loved sister of Hannah, Sam and Ethan, and best friend of Murdoch".
Her funeral service will take place at Roselawn Crematorium next Monday at 2pm.
Before Sophie was 16 her mother took her to three different GPs, but felt none of them took the problem seriously.
"She was getting thinner, and as I had suffered from an eating disorder when I was younger I knew the signs," she said.
"She would go out of the house on very long walks, but I was scared as she was so frail. A GP once told me to lock her in her room - that wasn't an option."
When she was 14 Sophie was referred to the NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
"It was absolutely pathetic," said Mrs Bridges. "It's no reflection on anybody who works there, they try their best, but she was discharged on her 16th birthday. She was no better, she was just above the age for their service. She was still too young, though, for the adult service and had nowhere to go. We just had to deal with it at home. We felt there was only a focus on her physical health, there was absolutely no psychological service."
Sophie spent the first half of 2017 as a hospital patient in a mental health unit.
"They did their best, but the provision just isn't there. There are just so many different issues in one unit. There are girls like Sophie in the same ward as elderly people with dementia and others with schizophrenia," Mrs Bridges added.
"I'm convinced we need a dedicated mental health accident and emergency ward, that will be my goal now."
During her final months Sophie felt too unwell to leave the house alone.
"In some ways that was very difficult and in other ways I'm grateful it gave us that time together," Mrs Bridges added.
Bulimia is characterised by binge and purge cycles, eating lots of food and immediately trying to undo the effects through methods like vomiting, laxatives and excessive exercise. The condition can be difficult to notice, as weight loss is often not as dramatic as with anorexia. Mrs Bridges said that she and Sophie had felt hurt in recent months by gossip that she was faking the illness, as she was still seen out for walks.
Belfast-based charity Eating Disorders NI said funding cuts meant both the NHS and the voluntary sector were struggling to provide care.
"NHS waiting lists are getting longer and we're seeing more people coming through our doors," it said. "Eating disorders are serious psychological illnesses that are potentially fatal. There's a young girl has just lost her life, that didn't need to happen.
"Bulimia is particularly concerning as someone's weight can be in a healthy range, they aren't in immediate physical danger, so they may not actually get seen."
- If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Bodywhys – the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland Helpline on 1890 200 444 or contact their email support service on email@example.com