Puberty is a period of drastic change that brings with it the complexities and challenges of growing up. For some young people, the pressures can lead to eating disorders. Unfortunately, this was the case for me.
In my secondary school and sixth form, about 10 per cent of students suffered from an eating disorder. Seeing other girls losing substantial amounts of weight sent my own competitive nature into overdrive, something that wasn’t helped by people’s offhand comments about my appearance or what I was eating. I isolated myself from everyone, not because of bullying but through sheer fear of people’s judgement.
I was lucky that I had a family I could confide in. Without their support, as well as my inpatient team (I was admitted to hospital for anorexia), I wouldn’t be on the road to recovery today. Nevertheless, I missed having a fully supportive school system – something that is crucial to the recovery of teenagers with eating disorders.
As a teacher, there is a very strong chance that you will come across a student who suffers from anorexia or bulimia.
Hard data on the prevalence of these disorders is not easy to find, as many cases go unreported, but estimates suggest that some 5 to 10 per cent of young people will have an eating disorder. Importantly, half the young people who took a survey conducted by the eating disorder charity Beat in 2012 felt that they would rather seek the help of a teacher than a parent (31 per cent).
It’s not an easy issue for teachers to handle. Students with dyslexia can be helped with the right support and equipment; students with nut allergies or asthma can be kept safe with an EpiPen or an inhaler; but an eating disorder has no straightforward solution.
Lorna Garner, chief operating supervisor of Beat, explains that although teachers are trying to help students, most believe they “don’t have enough information or guidance to help support them”. This is probably why 72 per cent of respondents to the Beat survey who suffered from an eating disorder received little support when they confided in their teachers.
Heads in the sand
One teacher from North Yorkshire, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that information and training on care for students with an eating disorder just isn’t available – and some teachers don’t seem to grasp the importance of it.
“I tried to talk to others at school regarding the lack of training and information that teachers get about eating disorders, and some very much agreed but others took the head-in-sand approach,” she says. “I think the biggest problem is the stigma that continues to surround eating disorders; unless teachers have experience of the actual thought processes of an eating disorder, they do not have any way of comprehending.”
Garner believes that much of the problem lies in the way teachers see their role in the process. “If we were to work from the premise of helping, rather than responsibility, there would be a more positive and collaborative response,” she argues.
She adds that calls for schools to be responsible for supervising the welfare of these sufferers are potentially very damaging because of the pressure this places on staff.
The North Yorkshire teacher agrees. “Parents, and friends and teachers, are not here to be counsellors and should not take on that role. Instead, they should just try and tell positive or funny stories and praise achievements: distract constantly and take them out of their negative headspace,” she says.
I agree wholeheartedly with this advice – it’s an approach I would have greatly appreciated. I also think that the guidelines proposed by Marg Oaten, secretary and co-founder of Seed Eating Disorder Support Services, are useful for teachers (read the guidelines, as well as information on how to set up a school policy, at bit.ly/SeedPolicy).
If you have concerns about a student potentially having an eating disorder, my advice would be as follows:
l If a student is being bullied or starts to isolate him- or herself from the group, talk to them but don’t prejudge the situation.
l Approach them with a tone that makes them feel you’re there because you want to be, not because you have to be.
l Keep an eye on them, raise concerns with their parents if you feel it’s right and make sure they know you are there and genuinely care.
The trauma of returning to school
Spotting the problem is not the end of it: the role of the school continues throughout and after treatment. For a diagnosed student who is returning to school after an extended period away, it can be an incredibly difficult time.
This is the experience that one anonymous student had when she returned to school after time in hospital: “Because I had been out of school, I had missed out on lessons. But when I asked about them, often the teacher would just say, ‘Oh, you weren’t here, it doesn’t matter’,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t deserve the explanation and that the teacher thought I was thick.”
Seed offers some crucial pointers on how to provide the individual with the smoothest possible transition back to school:
l Find an adult at the school who has the best relationship with the sufferer and can talk comfortably with them.
l Show care and compassion.
l Do not focus on the eating disorder. Reflect on any wider issues that may be happening.
l Make sure there is a readily available supply of water.
l Provide sufficient time to buy and eat food.
l Offer privacy when changing and showering after PE.
I don’t think I’ll ever know what really triggered my eating disorder and I’m OK with that. I could blame my school, I could blame my teachers for approaching me in the wrong way, but that would be wrong.
One of my teachers did offer me support but I was too wrapped up in my illusions to appreciate it at the time.
Even though I didn’t listen to my teacher, it doesn’t mean other students won’t. That is why it’s so important for an eating disorders policy to be in place because saving one life is better than saving none at all.
Mary Jane Reed is a pseudonym for a student in the North East of England
What is anorexia? This guide will help you to spot the symptoms.
In this Teachers TV video, three teenagers share their experience of battling anorexia.
Watch Katie’s story of recovering from an eating disorder.
Find out more
Further information is provided on Beat’s website: b-eat.co.uk/for-professionals
For those looking for training and resources, call the charity’s teacher helpline on 01603 753321 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers in the US can get information from the National Eating Disorders Association by emailing email@example.com