A dangerous obsession

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Teachers are vulnerable to eating disorders. Talking to someone as early as possible can make all the difference, says Hannah Frankel

So your Lenten diet is not going so well. But what if it was so successful that it did not stop in March? Could you become one of the estimated 1.1 million people in the UK affected by an eating disorder?

Mary George from beat, a charity for people affected by eating disorders, says no. "Eating disorders are not a diet gone wrong or a fad or fashion. They are a way of coping with difficult thoughts, emotions or experiences."

Skipping meals or becoming obsessive about exercise or calories are signs of an eating disorder. The most common are anorexia nervosa - when people deny themselves food - and bulimia nervosa (literally meaning, "the nervous hunger of an ox"), which involves binge eating followed by vomiting or taking laxatives.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which starts on February 25, aims to highlight the dangers implicit in the condition, which hits the education profession particularly hard.

"Eating disorders often affect perfectionists or those who care for others, so teaching fits with that profile," says Professor Janet Treasure, head of the eating disorder unit at King's College London. "Teaching can also be stressful, which can trigger the problem for anxious or overly conscientious people."

Sophie, 25, was working in a school for children with educational and behavioural difficulties in Dorset when she started skipping meals, making herself ill and taking laxatives.

"School was stressful," she says. "I was working until 11pm and dealing with awfully-behaved pupils during the day. It destroyed my self-confidence and made me feel like a failure."

Eventually, Sophie's doctor signed her off work and referred her to an eating disorders clinic. When she returned to work three weeks later, she slashed her wrists in the classroom, although no pupils were there. Afterwards she went to the staffroom and was rushed to hospital. "That was my lowest moment," says Sophie, who dropped from clothes size 10 to six while at the school. "I felt powerful when I was losing weight and didn't want to lose that sense of control."

With the help of her boyfriend, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, Sophie is now on the mend and working part-time in a children's centre for under 5s. She actively avoids stress and also keeps a food diary so that she can keep tabs on what she eats.

Olivia, a primary teacher, began to get obsessed about her weight at secondary school. The obsession continued into university and her first teaching post. "As a teacher my eating habits became a lot more erratic and I began the bulimic cycle of starving, bingeing and purging," she says. Olivia has had to take half a term off work, but she finds the fast pace of school life a useful distraction.

"I always find lunchtimes hard and it's been a long time since I ate a 'normal' size lunch at school, if any at all," says Olivia. She is now receiving help from a therapist - an important step in the road to recovery.

The earlier treatment is sought, the better the long-term prognosis, says Professor Treasure. However, this can be harder said than done as the sufferer is usually the last to admit they have a problem.

www.b-eat.co.uk www.eatingresearch.com

How to spot an eating disorder

People may:

- Become excessively busy to avoid meals.

- Never fully finish a meal or secretly hide uneaten food.

- Cook elaborate meals for others or enjoy watching others eat but not eat themselves.

- Become preoccupied with "reading" food packets and counting calories.

- Make endless excuses for avoiding eating.

- Overflow their plate with vegetables, while avoiding fatty foods.

- Constantly chew gum or consume vast amounts of water or black coffee to distract themselves from feeling hungry.

- Deliberately spoil their food by overcooking or adding too much salt.

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