The last one to know

17th May 2013 at 01:00

I've always liked targets: they are the road maps of our lives. Educationally, they take the form of exams, dissertations and assessments. They provide a safe and efficient frame for existence, one that smothers and soothes.

The real world is a frightening place for those who strive in education. Take us away from our learning objectives, leave us to take life as it comes, and we're lost. We continue to struggle for complete organisation in a world that is chaotic.

Recent figures from the National Health Service in England have shown a rising level of eating disorders among young people, which will come as no surprise to teachers. Exam season and the transition to university create the perfect environment for obsessional coping mechanisms, which are incubated in a nice, warm compost of teenage insecurity, heavily watered with unrealistic media representations of beauty and left to grow in a hothouse of low self-esteem. Disordered eating patterns can flourish like rhododendrons, distracting us with blossom so that we don't notice that nothing's growing in the acidity beneath.

As children, we can let grown-ups take responsibility for our illnesses. But once we reach the age of 16, our bodies are owned by us. We are left to nourish, punish and destroy them on our own terms.

I don't remember when my eating disorder started but I remember when I first opened my eyes to it: sitting in a living room with a weeping family, the fog slowly lifting, realising that although my brain was trying to hide it, my body was betraying me. After 11 years spent flourishing within a regimented world, university and the accompanying independence had proved daunting. I began to be affected by low moods and anxiety, but the cure seemed simple: control. A coping mechanism crept up on me, giving me support and satisfaction and providing a routine in which I appeared to thrive before I began to fade.

Where was my mother, and what could she do? You cannot hold down a young adult until they comply. Mum was there the whole time, not blinded as I was but aware and powerless; supporting, gently pushing, but never hard enough to make me hide. Nobody could make me see, or make me eat, until I wanted to. When people recognised how ill I was, and began calling her with their concerns, I'm surprised that she didn't scream. She held it together, knowing that the only person who could let go of my eating disorder was me.

When we watch those we care for struggle, we want to help. But wellness must come from within. All you can do to help someone with an eating disorder is offer love and support, and acknowledge the difficulties that come with exam pressures or the freedoms of post-16 existence. Recognise the comfort that an eating disorder can provide, mirroring the routine, goal orientation and performance-based education system that we are used to.

All you can do is stay strong for us until we see that starving, bingeing and self-destruction don't create a life that is worth pursuing. Nothing can be done until we recognise that they cause more chaos than they could solve.

Daughter of Thrope is the actual daughter of Anne Thrope (Ms), a teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs

How to help

School staff can play an important role in supporting students affected by eating disorders. Find guidance at: bit.lyEatingDisordersPolicy.

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