Oxford torchbearer fights against eating disorders

This summer, Nicola Byrom carried the Olympic torch around the Iffley running track, having taken it from none other than Roger Bannister. Unlike one torch-bearer, who had to be alerted to her tragically misspelt ‘Oylimpic Torch Bearer‘ tattoo by a friend, the official description of the torch bearers as ‘inspirational people’ seems particularly appropriate for Nicola, a doctoral psychology student at Oxford, who has founded a thriving charity organization working with eating disorders.

Nicola is fully aware of relevance of her doctoral work to understanding such eating disorders, an area close to her heart. Having herself recovered from anorexia during her teens, she is better placed than most to call it an ‘isolating problem’, remarking on ‘how many people were struggling with… and how few people talked about their problems’ at university.

This is an issue she was determined to address, to which end she founded Student Run Self Help on arriving in Oxford. It’s a charity that organizes student run group discussion sessions, in which sufferers of eating disorders can talk openly to others in a similar position. These sessions are run by students and Nicola is keen to stress that they are not to be seen as a substitute for professional help, work which ‘volunteers could never replace’. When asked what purpose Student Run Self Help could then serve, she suggested it was ‘a good stepping stone into treatment’ and an opportunity to understand the recovery paths available. Given the long waiting lists for treatment, this amounts to a crucial support network on which students can rely.

If student run group sessions are one stepping stone, having friends who express concern is another, according to Nicola, who also mentions the importance of commenting on friends’ unusual behaviour as a means of letting them know that they might need to consider treatment.

Despite the importance of friends, one of the advantages of a group session where the other participants are strangers is that it takes some of the pressure off friendships; Nicola expressed regret that these were not more ‘light-hearted’ during her teenage years, as the result of using them for support.

SRSH started life at Oxford, with the ‘support, motivation and encouragement’ of the team she met via Student Hubs and is now in place at 15 universities over the countries, an achievement Nicola hopes to augment with further expansion. SRSH seems to be a very personal project, both in terms of Nicola’s own recovery and her academic work, and it is certainly one which she wishes had been around to help her. She is keen, however, to note the contribution of the student volunteers and others who make the project feasible, such as project manager Elisabeth Reed.

In answer to the question of what her PhD entails – a dangerous question to ask someone in Oxford at the best of times – Nicola explains that it focuses on causes of depression relating to ‘changes in breadth of attention’. This, in a phrase which no doubt belies the work’s actual complexity ‘can be described most simply as looking at the big picture or the specific details’. Studying this sort of fixation on detail understandably relates to eating disorders.

Given how practical and academic concerns are so closely linked in a field like psychology, Oxford’s research into eating disorders is an area which lends support to projects such as SRSH, which is an ‘international leader in developing treatment’ according to Nicola. In answer to the question of which side of her work she was planing to continue after her degree, the practical involvement in SRSH or the research following from her PhD, she was unsure but hoped to maintain both, by training in clinical psychology.

Nicola learnt of her nomination in November last year, at first assuming that the email was a hoax, and only realizing otherwise with the subsequent phone call. Though she dismissed the idea that her nomination was linked to her work with SRSH, she was glad that being an Olympic torch bearer presented the opportunity of shedding light on eating disorders, an type of illness for which awareness is often lacking.

PHOTO/Hanna Sundahl