'You can't trust teachers not to blab'
Fewer than one in 20 pupils would turn to a teacher for help with an eating disorder, research has revealed.
And three-quarters said that they did not feel that their schools provided a supportive environment for recovery from anorexia or bulimia.
Academics at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London point out that early recognition of eating disorders helps to ensure successful treatment. Therefore, they said: "Schools have an important role to play in the detection of eating disorders and early interventions."
However, when they questioned more than 500 pupils from 21 secondaries around the country, they found that very few were willing to discuss eating concerns at school. Only 3 per cent said that they would go to a teacher for help.
Sixteen per cent of pupils said that their teachers had little or no knowledge of anorexia and bulimia. "They don't have a clue about stuff like eating disorders," one 14-year-old said. "It's like they were invented at the same time as computers - they don't have a clue about them, either."
Many were unconvinced that teachers would take their concerns seriously. "They'd probably just laugh, or say I was making it up for attention or something," said a 12-year-old girl.
Conversely, others worried that teachers would overreact. "If I told a teacher, my friend would be in the hospital by the end of the day, even if all he needed was someone to listen to him and tell him things would be OK," said a 15-year-old boy.
And more than half the pupils said that they were unsure whether or not they could trust their teachers. A 17-year-old girl spoke of her experience telling a teacher about a friend's eating disorder. "It was a big mistake," she said. "He told her parents and made everything so much worse."
"You can't trust teachers," a 15-year-old boy agreed. "They'll just go blabbing to parents before you can blink."
In addition, 73 per cent of teenagers said that they did not feel that their school would offer a supportive environment for a recovering anorexic or bulimic pupil. Bullying was a particular concern: "If you're different in any way, you get bullied. That includes the anorexics," said one 12-year-old girl.
But pupils also worried that they would be singled out by their teachers. "I was trying to get better and forget all about my anorexia," said one 18-year-old. "But I was constantly reminded by Mrs X tiptoeing round me and being extra nice."
Nonetheless, 73 per cent of pupils said they would welcome the opportunity to discuss eating-disorder concerns at school, if they could guarantee that their teachers would be well-informed.
But many added that it would be difficult to organise a private meeting with a suitable teacher. "The only teachers in my school who have an office are the ones you definitely wouldn't want to talk to," said a 17-year-old girl.
Others, however, said that their schools had helpful systems in place to allow for such meetings. One school guaranteed a 10-minute one-to-one meeting with a form tutor each half-term. Another had a computerised system for making appointments with teachers.
And pupils had several suggestions for ways in which their schools could improve their methods for dealing with eating disorders. They recommended that teachers do not take any action without fully involving the pupil who raised the issue in the first place.
Several advocated employing dedicated counsellors. "You don't want to go and learn maths off someone who you've just been talking to about all your deepest worries," a 14-year-old boy said.
Teenagers also felt that it was important to teach staff and pupils that an eating disorder was an illness like any other. "We're not freaks," said a 17-year-old.
"We're just like everyone else. We have our problems, but we happen to use food to deal with them. But ... then it's made out like this weird illness for crazy people."
"Just listen," another pupil said. "Don't judge me. And please be honest about what you're going to do."
King's college survey results
Has your school ever taught you about eating disorders?
Can't remember: 3%
Yes, and it was helpful: 5%
Yes, and it was not helpful: 25%
If you told a teacher, what would you want them to do?
Tell my friend's parents: 2%
Talk to my friend: 25%
Just listen: 11%
Make sure my friend got support: 16%
Help me to help my friend: 45%
What do you think the teacher would actually do?
Just listen: 14%
Make sure my friend got support: 11%
Tell my friend's parents: 48%
Help me to help my friend: 5%
Talk to my friend: 22%
If you were suffering from an eating disorder, school would feel a safe and supportive place to recover
Strongly agree: 2%
Neither agree nor disagree: 16%
Strongly disagree: 47%
Note: Owing to rounding, percentages might not add up to 100.
"My teacher saved my life": an online survey of pupils' experiences of eating disorders, by Jodi Knightsmith, Olivia Breen, Helen Sharpe, Janet Treasure, Ulrike Schmidt, division of psychological medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.
Eating Disorders Advice