Megan captures some of the elements that are crucial for teachers and other professionals to bear in mind in noticing and helping young people with eating disorders in schools.
Firstly, it is important that they do notice and help. In child and adolescent mental health services, young people seem to have been coming to us more unwell after lockdown. Parents who see their child every day often don’t notice incremental weight loss – school is often the first place that it gets picked up. Without teachers’ eyes on their pupils, young people seemed to get worse before they got to us.
Secondly, schools should be mindful of clusters of outbreaks, as eating disorders are contagious. A preoccupation with food, eating, weight and shape can become a shared interest amongst a group of (usually) girls, and if they have certain predisposing factors, such as a perfectionistic, hard-working personality, this interest can spiral into a mental health problem.
I also agree that it is difficult for teachers to know the right thing to say, but a bit like safeguarding issues, it is just important to say something: either to say something to the child or their parents, or to share your bit of information with your colleagues or senior leadership. Eating disorders become more serious the longer they go unchecked.
Over the eight years since Megan suffered, she is also right that pressures on young people have increased and more and more children have been tipped into mental health problems, including eating disorders. But this increase is put into the shadows by the increase caused by the pandemic and lockdowns: over the last year, CAMHS teams up and down the country have experienced a doubling in referrals. Services are overwhelmed, and as it takes many years to gain the specialist knowledge and experience to help someone with an eating disorder, there simply aren’t the staff to employ.
Despite this, we would recommend that schools don’t hesitate to raise the alarm if they notice worrying changes, mentally or physically, when their pupils return this autumn. CAMHS will likely have a triage system in place – particularly in the case of eating disorders – and will endeavour to intervene as soon as possible.
Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist specialising in eating disorders