When Susie Birney started gaining weight at puberty, she was convinced she had an eating disorder.
Over the years, as she gained more weight, she listened to her peers and tried to eat less and exercise more.
“I’ve always been very active, so this ‘eat less, move more’ thing didn’t make sense in my life,” she said.
“I focused too much on trying to fix the eating disorder, so every time I went on a new diet, it was like you felt like a failure when it didn’t work, so you blamed yourself. The stigma was quite harsh.
Society continues to view obesity as a case of personal responsibility, she said, rather than a disease that can often be beyond a person’s control.
Ms Birney formed a support group for obese people 10 years ago.
“You can’t do it alone,” she said.
“Doing it alone leaves you feeling like a failure all the time. Now, looking back, I didn’t know the link between obesity and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Ms Birney is now executive director of the new Irish Coalition for People with Obesity (ICPO). The group aims to “support, educate and raise awareness that obesity is a complex chronic disease where the body’s ability to regulate weight is disrupted”.
The patient-led group has worked with the HSE and ERSI on the development of Ireland’s National Obesity Strategy and advocates for community supports for people with obesity.
Implementing the new model of care will improve access for 60% of the Irish population with obesity, the group said, by providing access to community-based weight management programmes, specialist medical management teams and services bariatric surgery.
Professor Donal O’Shea, HSE Clinical Lead for Obesity, said: “The support that the ICDO has given to the obesity program over the past few years has been essential to the progress we have made – and I expect its impact to only grow. .”
Ms Birney said: ‘If you keep trying to fight something that is a lingering disease that you are likely to have for the rest of your life, you always fail, you always lose.
“Whereas if you live with it and cope and adapt, it’s much more manageable.”