Eating Disorders Awareness Week

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 has launched its “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 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 person's interactions with food may make them 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, a 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 toward 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 teachers need 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
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Low confidence and self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive and/or rigid behaviour
  • Perfectionism and setting unreasonably high personal standards
  • Self-harm
  • 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, and handwriting might also decrease in size to minute proportions.

If you have concerns about a pupil, follow your school's 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 has numerous resources on its website, as well as a helpline if you would like more information or support.

References for Eating Disorders Awareness Week


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