The number of people in the UK battling eating disorders is rising, resulting in many children, young people and adults being admitted to hospital, or at increased risk of suicide. While recovery rates are optimistic, if young people do not overcome an eating disorder, it can stay with them into adult life, at which point it becomes much more difficult to cure.
Early identification and intervention assist a successful recovery, and teachers and other school staff are well placed to spot indicators that pupils may be more able to hide at home; however, many teachers feel helpless or unqualified to support pupils with eating disorders. So, how can school staff help their vulnerable or suffering pupils?
Know the facts
Estimates suggest that over 1.6 million people in the UK are directly affected by eating disorders; however, as these figures are only based on those known to be seeking or receiving treatment, a completely accurate figure is impossible.
Many who suffer from eating disorders don’t seek help, while many parts of the UK still lack sufficient support services, and the needs of huge numbers of people with eating disorders are not met, making this figure highly likely to be an underestimate. The Department of Health believes the true figure of affected people is closer to four million.
While anorexia is more common in females, a 27 percent rise in males with eating disorders suggests that 25 percent of those with eating disorders in the UK are now male. A survey of 1,005 boys between 8 and 18 years old found that secondary school pupils believe eating disorders and body image issues affect boys just as much as girls.
Eating disorders are commonly developed as a coping mechanism, as a result of underlying emotional distress.
Understand the risk factors
Unresolved, stressful situations, such as the following, can increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder:
- Being bullied about their weight
- Participation in a sport that demands a particular body build
- Being surrounded by a culture placing importance on physical appearance and fixed diets
- Low self-esteem
- Transition from school to school, or school to college
While studies into biological risk factors are yet to define the proportion of genetic and environmental factors contributing to eating disorders, one biological factor widely accepted as linked to eating disorders is personality type. According to research, some personality types are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, such as obsessive compulsive personalities. A recent study also found that more frequent use of Facebook was associated with more disordered eating. (MGEDT) (Anorexia and bulimia care)
Look out for warning signs
Indicators that a pupil is suffering with an eating disorder can include the following:
- Increased social isolation
- Diminished concentration levels
- Weight loss
- Non-participation in PE
- Wearing unnecessary extra clothing as if to keep warm or hide body shape
- Perfectionist or compulsive behaviours (wanting to get everything right)
- Excessive exercise
Take Media Smart tips for teachers
On the TES resources website, Media literacy programme Media Smart proposed the following five tips for teachers to help their pupils battling eating disorders:
- Model and promote a positive body ideal based on health and acceptance of different sizes and shapes.
- Emphasise the importance of skills and attributes other than appearance, such as sense of humour, helpfulness or thoughtful behaviour, through praise and encouragement to pursue activities that make them happy.
- Hold open and engaging conversations with pupils about the portrayal of body image in the media.
- Teach pupils about the importance of a balanced diet, encouraging an understanding that their body and brain relies on nourishment to function properly.
- Create a safe, comfortable space for pupils to talk about their problems. Listen and acknowledge their worries, and help pupils to recognise and challenge unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Acquire training and resources from a recognised charity or provider
Local child and adolescent mental health services differ depending on the area, but they may be able to provide useful information about how and when to gain their help, as well as useful resources.
Similarly, reputable charities, such as Beat and YoungMinds are capable of providing training, as well as resources to assist teachers in delivering lessons on self-esteem, body image and eating disorders.
Create supportive opportunities for pupils to talk
Sometimes, pupils may struggle to talk about troubling issues with their parents/carers. Simply making yourself available for pupils to talk to at regular times can provide them with a safe and supportive environment they desperately need. Remain supportive, sensitive and honest during these conversations with pupils and avoid being critical, to ensure you heighten rather than hinder a pupil’s chance of recovery.
It is essential that you communicate with the pupil’s family, even if the pupil would prefer you to keep the information they shared with you confidential. If the pupil feels uncomfortable discussing their issues with their family and friends, teachers can be effective mediators in any initial conversations and in working towards a united front of family and friends to help the pupil battle their eating disorder.
Support throughout the recovery process may be different for individual pupils in different circumstances, but it’s important to understand that they may no longer be able to achieve their initial academic expectations and that these should be revised in line with the pupil’s support system. You may also need to allow for the pupil to have independent time throughout the day, and leave lessons to visit the school nurse if they feel unwell.
Useful websites for more information
This article only scratches the surface of how you can help your pupils with eating disorders along their road to recovery. For more expert information, guidance and resources, visit the websites below:
 Anorexia and bulimia care (n.d.) ‘Statistics’, <http://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/about/statistics> [Accessed: 16 August 2016]
 June Alexander (2013) ‘A Lesson for Teachers in Addressing the Eating Disorder Bully’, <https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/lesson-teachers-addressing-eating-disorder-bully> [Accessed: 16 August 2016]
 Adi Bloom (2016) ‘Boys worry about eating disorders – but do not talk to teachers about it’, <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/boys-worry-about-eating-disorders-do-not-talk-teachers-about-it> [Accessed: 16 August 2016]