The 25th February-3rd March 2019 is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This is an international awareness event designed to promote understanding and fight myths surrounding eating disorders. The eating disorder charity BEAT have launched their “Breaking Down Barriers” campaign to raise awareness that eating disorders do not discriminate. Stereotypes exist suggesting that only certain people will develop an eating disorder, however this is not the case, anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age or background.
An eating disorder is a mental illness that involves disordered eating behaviour. This might mean limiting food intake, eating very large quantities of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. purging, laxative misuse, fasting, or excessive exercise), or a combination of these behaviours. Eating disorders are not all about food, but about feelings. A persons interactions with food may make them feel more able to cope or give them a feeling of control. It is still not clear why people develop eating disorders, however current research suggests that it is a combination of biology and an environmental trigger, some kind of life event of significance to the individual. Eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa (AN)
- Bulimia Nervosa (BN)
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
According to The Priory, 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders, which are most common in young people aged between 14 and 25 years old. The earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated the better the chance a person has of recovering. Schools can play an important part by having policies and procedures in place that reduce risk factors for pupils developing eating disorders in the future. As low self-esteem is a key feature of eating disorders, schools are encouraged to promote health and well-being as this can help increase self-esteem and promote positive mental health and self image. Bullying has been identified as a particular risk factor which can impact self-esteem, therefore having an anti-bullying policy in place is highly recommended. Schools can also help pupils with their body confidence; Be Real campaign to change attitudes to body image by advocating putting health above appearance, they have produced a handy toolkit to help teachers talk to pupils about body confidence which is available from their website. Training staff and having connections with health services can also help teachers identify warning signs and give them access to more information or advice.
Eating disorders have been identified in children as young as 6 so it is important for teachers to be aware of the signs. BEAT have compiled a list of things to look out for:
- Social isolation
- Avoiding eating around others
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low confidence and self-esteem
- Obsessive and/or rigid behaviour
- Perfectionism and setting unreasonably high personal standards
- Changes to weight – either gaining or losing weight, or experiencing fluctuating weight
People with eating disorders may also strive for perfection which might be evident in their academic work; it may be excessively neat, they may experience increased anxiety about errors or become inflexible in thinking, handwriting might also decrease in size to minute proportions.
If you have concerns about a pupil then follow your schools policy on what action to take. This may involve speaking to the child’s parents, the school nurse or liaising with local CAMHS services. NHS 111 is available to provide advice and BEAT have numerous resources on their website, as well as a helpline if you would like more information or support.
References for Eating Disorders Awareness Week
Children’s Mental Health
Rebecca Clayton is a psychology graduate currently working in the mental health sector of the NHS.