'I had no choice - It was either life or death’: How a woman was sent 200 miles away for anorexia treatment

A woman sent 200 miles away from her home in Wales to receive specialist treatment for anorexia said "it’s just not right" such care isn’t available closer to home. Caryl Griffiths, 26, was diagnosed with anorexia in March 2020. In an interview with Y Byd ar Bedwar, she said being sent to another country during the pandemic where she was unable to see her family made her “so angry”. 

Caryl said the illness "came from nowhere" and her diagnosis was a shock to her and her family. 

“I was a little bit stressed because of work so I started going to the gym to take my mind off things", Caryl said.

"Then the cycle started of eating a little bit less and feeling unhappy with how I looked. I started seeing changes in my body and then it turned into an obsession in front of my eyes."“Just before I asked for help, I remember crawling up and down the stairs, but I still had to go to the gym. I remember falling once, and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh god, what am I doing?’ So I agreed to seek help."

Caryl Griffiths, 26, was diagnosed with Anorexia at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Credit: Caryl Griffiths

During lockdown, Caryl’s health and eating disorder worsened.  She was forced to give up her job as a primary school teacher and her mother became her full time carer.

Then she was referred to a specialist in-patient unit in Marlborough called Cotswold House - 200 miles away from her family.

“I remember crying and saying ‘No, you’re not sending me’. I have to have my family and friends with me to function from day to day. Without them - no way.”

“I knew I had no choice - it was either life or death. I travelled with my family to a hospital not even in my country in the middle of this virus where I knew possibly I wouldn’t see them for months. But I’m still, to this day, so angry that I couldn’t do that transition and get myself better in my own country, and it’s just not right. "

  • What support is available in Wales?Eating disorder and mental health support are categorised into four tiers, but only tiers one to three are available in Wales. If an adult requires tier four support – a specialist in-patient unit for the most serious of cases – they are referred to a unit in England, like Cotswold House.

"Tier three was amazing for me but it wasn’t enough," Caryl said.

"There was nothing else that team could have provided me to get me to live. The only option I had was to go to England because there’s no tier four here.

"We need a tier four in Wales."

Her family, who run a dairy farm near Llangrannog, had to travel more than four hours one way to visit their daughter in England.

“It’s disgraceful and disastrous that there is no unit in Wales,” Caryl’s parents Geraint and Delyth said.

“We could only see her through the window,” they recalled.

Caryl's parents would travel 5 hours each way to see their daughter in Marlborough. Credit: Caryl Griffiths

According to Caryl’s parents, eight of the eleven beds in the unit at the time were occupied by Welsh patients.

“A place like that can save someone’s life, and there isn’t one in Wales. We need somewhere like Cotswold House, so other families don’t have to suffer like us and the other families that are going to suffer.”

“It’s difficult to believe that the government is doing nothing.”

The eating disorder charity BEAT said the number of people it has supported in Wales has increased by 250% in the last year. Nearly 3,000 people have required support from them in the last year, compared to just over a thousand in 2019. Of those, nearly 40% sought support for anorexia.

Nikki Grahame

The death of big brother star, Nikki Grahame, has also sparked debate after she died in April following a battle with anorexia. The 38-year-old rose to fame following a stint as a contestant on the Channel 4 reality show in 2006.

Francesca Murphy, 24, from Goodwick near Fishguard has also been diagnosed with anorexia. She first experienced the illness seven years ago but as lockdown measures were introduced, she feared she was relapsing.

Francesca Murphy was also sent to England to receive specialist care for her anorexia. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

“The past year has been so extreme, and I wanted control over something during lockdown,” she said.

“I thought I could control food and the way I look, but really I’m not in control at all.”

In March this year, Francesca required tier four support and was referred to the in-patient unit, Cotswold House.

Francesca's room in Cotswold House where she stayed for 10 weeks. Credit: Francesca Murphy

“The place in England was really good and helpful, but I couldn’t see family, couldn’t see friends, and I could only go out twice a day.”

Like Caryl, Francesca described the absence of tier four support in Wales is "shocking".

Dr Menna Jones was appointed as the clinical lead on eating disorders in Wales by the Welsh Government in 2020. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Dr Menna Jones, was appointed as the clinical lead on eating disorders in Wales by the Welsh Government in 2020.

She described Francesca and Caryl's situation as the "sad reality of so many families.”

“Currently we’re looking at how services within the community can be strengthened to prevent people from needing to be admitted to hospital, and to develop treatment earlier", she said.

In 2018, the Welsh Government conducted a review of eating disorder services, having recognised that the structure of services needed to be changed.

Twenty two recommendations were made, but creating a tier four specialist unit in Wales was not prioritised. It was decided that the need for the unit’s creation would be reviewed again in five years’ time.

While Dr Jones thinks that such a unit is needed, she raised concerns about the practicalities.

“The question is, how would that be developed? Where? Numbers? What would it look like? It’s a good thing that we’re looking at the situation in the near future because by then we’ll see what the pandemic’s effect is, and can then ensure that the service is developed according to the needs we have.”

Y Byd ar Bedwar has asked the Health Minister, Eluned Morgan for an interview, but she was unavailable. A spokesperson said investment has been given to health boards to support improvements.

In a statement, they said, “Treatment for eating disorders is provided as close to home as possible, but sometimes specialist treatment may need to be provided further away. We have continued to invest in eating disorder services and since 2017, health boards have received an additional £2.5m to support improvements.

"The National Clinical Lead for Eating Disorders took up post earlier this year and has led stakeholder workshops with clinicians, third sector and people living with eating disorders. This is a pivotal role to deliver the transformational change needed in this area.”

You can catch up with a Y Byd ar Bedwar on S4C clic or on iPlayer. English subtitles available.

What support is available?

  • Beat - People can get support in Welsh or English by calling the main helpline number 0808 801 0677