Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2017 takes place this year from 27 February to 5 March, and focusses on the importance of early intervention.
It’s common sense that the earlier an illness – be it physical or mental – is detected and treated, the sooner things are likely to improve. The challenge when it comes to eating disorders, is that individuals may not even realise they are at risk of developing a problem until it’s too late. So, how do we help people ask for support when they may not even know they need it?
It’s absolutely time we started talking more openly about eating disorders. According to UK eating disorder charity, Beat, over 725,000 people in the UK are thought to be suffering, with Anorexia known to be the leading cause of death for all mental health disorders. Talking to young people about eating disorders in explicit terms will not encourage or inspire them to become ill – it will equip them with the vital information they need to spot signs of vulnerability in themselves or a friend. Pupils in Year 10 and above can cope with hearing words like ‘Anorexia’ and ‘Bulimia’, as they will most likely have heard about it via celebrity culture and social media. Name the eating disorder, be open about it, and make sure pupils know how and where to ask for help if they’re worried about themselves or someone else.
Younger children and teens can also be affected by eating disorders, and it is vital that they’re equipped with age-appropriate information. This doesn’t have to be about eating disorders directly, but can focus on the importance of nutrition, understanding how their bodies work and how valuable and sustaining food is. The human body is an amazing thing, and children can build resilience to eating disorders by learning about how to look after themselves and celebrate individuality.
One of the biggest barriers to early intervention is the reality that specialist services, like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS), are overstretched and underfunded. This means only the children with the most severe cases tend to get into the system, and this sends an unhelpful subliminal message to others to make themselves more ill in order to qualify for help.
Make time at school for pupils to talk at whatever point they feel they’re at, because it’s preferable for a child to say they’ve felt tempted to stop eating and get immediate support, rather than struggle alone and develop an eating disorder. Be clear that your school cares and wants to help – seeing a poster about eating disorders won’t cause an epidemic among your pupils – instead it might save someone’s life.
Communicate with parents
Consider hosting a parents’ information evening, and talk openly about eating disorders and other issues such as self-harm. Not all children will develop an eating disorder, but every child is likely to eventually know someone who is affected, and it’s important they feel they can talk to the people they live with. It’s also vital that parents are challenged against thinking ‘it wouldn’t happen to my child’, and are supported to realise that eating disorders can – and do – happen to anyone.
Early intervention is critical, and events like Eating Disorder Awareness Week provide a brilliant opportunity to start having some of these difficult conversations.
For information and support on running sessions for pupils and/or parents, contact the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.