Suffolk father to spend £2m bringing eating disorder care closer to home

Chris McKenna is a clinical psychiatrist and is hoping to create Suffolk's first specialist resident

Chris McKenna is a clinical psychiatrist and is hoping to create Suffolk's first specialist residential home for people with eating disorders. Chris is pictured at his home in Bury. - Credit: Archant

A Suffolk psychologist whose daughter had to go to Norwich to be treated for anorexia is spending £2m of his own money to help others have care closer to home.

Chris McKenna, 55, spent his working life as a clinical psychologist, even setting up a specialist mental health treatment centre with two others in 1997 near Newmarket.

Having sold the company in 2005, the Bury St Edmunds resident was close to retiring but this all changed two years ago after his 18-year-old daughter, whom he has asked not to be named, was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

“Although I could see it and I treated individuals with bulimia and anorexia throughout my career, when it’s your own daughter it becomes a completely different issue,” he said.

The illness took a toll on his daughter, who had started displaying symptoms before she went travelling around the world.

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Three months after she left, Chris and his wife Jackie, 56, met her in Sydney.

“We were horrified,” said Chris, “she looked skeletal, she looked dreadful. It was at that point I realised that she had an eating disorder. I think I realised well before then and we were worried about it but as a parent rather than a clinician your approach and relationship is quite different. I was her dad rather than her therapist. I wanted to see what I wanted to see and not the condition.”

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After long discussions, they came back to the UK and she went to see a GP. Immediately she was referred to West Suffolk Hospital. From there, a vacancy arose at Newmarket House, near Norwich, an independent residential hospital dedicated solely to the treatment of eating disorders. It works with the NHS as a resource provider so people can be referred there.

However, Chris said they were lucky to even get a place near Norwich, many have to go much further afield as he said there was no specialist provision in Suffolk.

A great deal of current research points to the fact that mental health treatment is much more effective the closer to home it is, allowing home visits and being less of a dislocation for the patient.

“I’d started to do some research on the prevalence and incidence of the disorder and the number of beds available and the number of treatments available,” Chris said. “It was personal experience but through that I realised that there was clearly a need for eating disorder beds and for a service that can provide very high-quality medical and clinical inputs.”

Given his professional history, he realised he was perfectly situated to set this up to help others in Suffolk like his daughter, who will soon turn 20 and has just gone to study at a nearby university.

Chris spoke of the “serendipitous” moment when he realised their former six-bedroom home at The Chimneys, in New Road, Rougham, could be turned into a 12-bed residential home to help treat people with an eating disorder.

“I had no real intention of getting involved in developing specialist inpatient services again,” he said. “I thought I had been there, done that and got the t-shirt but her illness made me re-think that and think about using my experience and skills both as a service developer and clinician to do something useful.”

If it gets planning permission, Chris and his wife will be funding the development and the initial running costs.

Chris said there was a shortfall in the number of bed spaces available for people needing treatment, with the much of the distribution across the country nearer to London.

Also see: Suffolk’s first eating disorder treatment centre could be created in Rougham

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