As we mark this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we explore ways in which teachers can support students they suspect may have an eating disorder.
For those who have never been affected by disorders, it’s easy to form misconceptions around them. “It’s just an eating disorder.” “Eating disorders are a choice”. “Men don’t get eating disorders”. For people living with eating disorders, however, such misconceptions can not only be demoralising — they can be extremely dangerous, too.
Eating disorders affect an estimated 1.6 million people in the UK and have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. Worse still, the number of teenage boys with eating disorders has doubled in recent years.
Overall, an estimated 20% of young people at secondary school will exhibit some signs of an eating disorder. However, these signs mostly go unrecognised — contributing to a problem that plagues all corners of society. If trends continue, we could have an epidemic on our hands.
With 1 in 5 students affected, it’s a problem that needs to be properly addressed by educators. That’s why it’s incumbent on teachers to raise awareness of the risks of eating disorders at school. But to do so, we need to educate ourselves on the warning signs and symptoms of such conditions.
Thankfully, a spate of support networks and mental health education have cropped up in recent years. Eating Disorders Awareness Week is an international event that puts the spotlight on the prevalence of eating disorders and the devastation they can wreak on a person’s life. Importantly, it also raises awareness of ways that we can collectively curb this societal problem.
Whether you’re a teacher, school worker or concerned parent, you can use this blog post as a quick, how-to guide for dealing with eating disorders in students.
The types of eating disorders
There are various types of eating disorders, but some are more prevalent — and dangerous — than others. Here’s a quick overview of the most common eating disorders found in schools and society at large:
Commonly known as anorexia, this serious mental illness is characterised by people trying to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough or exercising too much, or both.
People with the condition will become unwell as they rapidly lose weight and literally start to starve. Severe health problems such as cardiovascular issues and a weakened immune system can follow if left the illness is left unchecked.
Though anorexia can affect anyone who develops a distorted body image, it’s most common in young women and typically starts in young teens during secondary school. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, either from physical problems associated with the condition or from suicide. In short, it’s an extremely serious illness.
Bulimia is a serious mental illness when people consume large amounts of food in a short space of time (known as “binge eating”) and then overcompensate by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting or excessively exercising (a process known as “purging”). The condition can destroy your teeth, trigger fits and spasms, and lead to heart, kidney and bowel problems. It can even kill you.
Like anorexia, bulimia can affect men and women of any age but is most common in young women. It typically starts in young teens who are unhappy about their weight and have a distorted view of their body. The illness is around four times more common than anorexia.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
Previously called “selective eating disorder”, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder is when people severely limit the amount or type of food they eat. Though similar to anorexia, ARFID sufferers do not express any distress with their body image, shape or weight. People with ARFID do not consume enough calories to maintain healthy bodily function. In children, this can severely hinder weight gain and vertical growth.
Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder can be diagnosed when a person habitually overeats large quantities of food on a regular basis, often in an out-of-control manner. This can cause sudden weight gain and a flurry of mental and physical health problems.
Though the illness mostly starts in young adults in their 20s, it’s also common in schoolchildren. Like all the other disorders listed here, early treatment can prevent illness escalating and improve chances of recovery.
For more information on the types of eating disorders, check out the NHS eating disorders page.
Recognising the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in students
Given that these psychiatric illnesses are so prevalent in schools, learning to recognise the warning signs of eating disorders will enable you to take a proactive rather than reactive role.
Eating disorder signs and symptoms can loosely be grouped into three different areas: emotional, physical and behavioural.
Below are some of the things that could suggest a student has an eating disorder or is at risk of developing one. Please bear in mind that students may exhibit different signs at different times, and may be symptomatic of another mental or physical health problem.
Many of the symptoms listed above are also symptomatic of other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Mental health problems often overlap and can, in turn, cause physical ailments. That’s why you should always remain vigilant when it comes to the wellbeing of students.
I think my student has an eating disorder. What should I do?
If you’ve found this article via Google search, it’s likely that this bothersome question is preying on your mind. After all, it’s our duty as guardians of the classroom to ensure the wellbeing of the students in them — and to provide support whenever needed. If you suspect a student is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, there are a number of ways to encourage them to seek treatment without getting in the way.
The first and most important method is to cultivate a safe teaching and learning environment. Though eating disorders are inherently personal, they can often stem from external sources such as a name-calling, bullying or public humiliation. By striving to create a classroom setting that promotes inclusivity, teamwork and compassion, you’ll make it easier for students with problems to seek support if they need it.
Of course, many students with eating disorders will likely keep their problems to themselves due to an intense fear of being judged by their peers. That’s why it's also important for teachers to give students the tools to seek help themselves.
Intervention can be crucial, but it’s important not to be too heavy-handed. It’s not our place to double up as mental health professionals. Instead, provide students with informative resources and signposting them to the appropriate support networks. Let them know they can come to you with complete confidentiality if they have any problems.
Finally, teachers can help to challenge misconceptions about eating disorders. Creative lesson plans can directly tackle the problem by discussing signs, symptoms, risk factors and how to get support. Make sure to showcase testimonials of people who have first-hand experience of an eating disorder — especially examples that show a full recovery is indeed possible.
Educating your students on the reality of eating disorders and demystifying damaging perceptions can have a powerful, tangible impact. Firstly, it will encourage more compassionate behaviour in students and help them learn to spot early warning signs in their friends or peers. Secondly, it can empower those suffering in silence to better understand their condition and take a more objective view of their problems.
Remember, each individual case of an eating disorder is unique — with numerous causes, symptoms and risks attached. That’s why adopting a flexible, proactive approach is vital. By following the tips above, teachers can give young people with eating disorders a real ray of hope — even if they feel like there is none.
We all want our students to be healthy, happy and engaged. Let’s help smash the stigma together and create a teaching environment that truly makes a difference.