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“It’s about sharing experiences and getting support from shared experiences,” explains Pihla Aaltonen.

New peer support group for eating disorders opens its doors.

Facebook, Instagram, Photoshop: we live in a society obsessed with image. How we look has become a large part of the way we present ourselves socially. Yet an obsession with image doesn’t come without its obstacles, and often impacts our relationship with our bodies. Core to this is our relationship with food – which has developed in to a “complicated relationship”. To deal with these issues, support groups in Finland are on offer.

Etelänsyli is the southern division of the national umbrella organisation SYLI (syömishäiriöliitto), the eating disorder association of Finland. SYLI began from a combined initiative of both families looking for peer support and professionals with an interest in eating disorders. Now many who use their services have eating disorders themselves.

“It’s about sharing experiences and getting support from shared experiences,” explains Pihla Aaltonen, a volunteer and board member. “Knowing that others have gone through similar things can be quite comforting.”

Currently, Etelänsyli hosts a variety of events: two coffee mornings per week, along with events for families and loved ones with talks on different issues. They also provide email support and are starting “Friday lunches”, making lunch a social situation to alleviate the anxiety that comes with eating. They maintain an open door policy and are easy to access – anyone can join; no referral necessary.

“We try and make it positive and informal,” Aaltonen continues. “If someone’s having a bad day and struggling a wee bit it’s a nice place to come; people understand what you’re going through. A couple of weeks ago they had a lively discussion on how the media affects eating disorder behaviour in young girls in a world where you have to look thin and have all these attributes to you that say nothing about who you are on the inside.”

They also aim to educate groups of professionals about what eating disorders are, how to spot them, and how to react to them by holding talks in schools and institutions of higher education – and recently even a gym.

8 October, 17:00-19:00
Tallberginkatu 1, Cable Factory B-Stairway, 4th floor.
Email Pihla Aaltonen at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
For more information: http://etelansyli.fi

English support

Currently Aaltonen is also planning an English support group, which will be held on 8 October at their office.

“Peer support and easy access mental health support in English doesn’t exist,” she says. Someone seeking support for the first time would go either to their local health centre or student health services and get access to a professional. Yet some people might want something more informal. In addition, seeing a professional may take a while. The first event is a pilot to see if there is demand.

When Aaltonen moved to Scotland to study some years ago, she had an eating disorder. “Because I was in a foreign country, I didn’t really know how to access services. I had times when I was really struggling,” Aaltonen says. Eating disorders often start during a time of great change and uncertainty, and given the challenge of moving to a new country, Aaltonen believes that there may be demand from people here in a similar situation as she once was.

Text & Photo by Alicia Jensen.