What do pupils and school staff need to know about eating disorders?

Last updated on June 14th, 2020

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I propose that your school has a staff member who is designated to deal with eating disorders. This person should see that pupils and staff know a minimum about the subject. Awareness-raising has several purposes:

  1. Early detection of an eating disorder
  2. Encouraging those affected to ask for help
  3. Reducing the stigma, prejudices and myths that those affected could be subject to

The information you give pupils could backfire, so here are some tips.

What all pupils need to know about eating disorders

On the next page, dealing with health promotion and eating disorder prevention, I caution you against inadvertently giving out information that could increase stigma or that could be used as a how-to manual for anorexia. I also encourage you to use a validated program for body confidence.

What remains to be done is to encourage pupils to report any concerns they have about a possible eating disorder in themselves or in peers. To this aim, you will need to give them information to recognise an eating disorder.

Be careful not to inadvertently give dieting or exercising tips. The main points you want pupils to get are:

  • It's common for pupils to suffer from an eating disorder.
  • They need expert diagnosis and treatment as early as possible because eating disorders screw up lives. So please speak to a teacher if you suspect that you, or a peer, suffer from an eating disorder.
  • Possible signs are hiding food, avoiding meals, major bingeing, obsession around food, rigid rules around food, calories, body shape and exercise. Don’t worry if you’re not sure – it’s for the specialists to decide if there is cause for concern  and to work out what to do next.
  • Eating disorders are nobody’s fault and nobody chooses to have one. There are still a lot of unknowns about causation. Like many illnesses, we’re probably looking at a complex interaction of genes and environment.
  • People who are battling the disorder are glad for the parts of their life that are normal, so if you’re their friend, keep interacting as a friend.
  • If one of your peers is in treatment for an eating disorder and you see signs that they are deteriorating or relapsing, it is helpful if you let a teacher know (or their parents, if you know them).
  • We will use your information without revealing your name. You may also tell your friend that you are concerned and are about to report your concerns to a teacher or to the parents, and if you do that, don’t be dissuaded by their assurances that they are fine or that they can get better without help.
  • If you think you have an eating disorder, it’s important you get help as it’s not an illness that goes away without the support of others. We hope you will talk to a teacher. Mr/Mrs [designated staff member] has special knowledge on the subject and will know what to do next. Note that because eating disorders can be dangerous and early treatment is best, we are unlikely to give you confidentiality. Instead, we will help you get sympathetic help.

Support pupils who are upset about a fellow pupil’s eating disorder

  • They may need reassurance that they could not cause an eating disorder – causation is far more complex.
  • If they are scared for their friend they may need reassurance that eating disorders are treatable and that you are making sure their friend is getting treatment.
  • They may need empathy for their friendship being altered by the presence of an eating disorder.
  • They may want guidance on what to say and what not to say to their friend. There is guidance on this on the internet, but the parents of the friend with the eating disorder are well-placed to advise on this.

What all staff need to know about eating disorders

  • All staff should be given the same basic awareness as the pupils.
  • I encourage you to use a validated body confidence program (see next page) so that they too have education on body confidence, on zero-tolerance of weight-shaming, on avoiding fat-talk, and using food-neutral language.
  • They should know that the school has a policy and a designated member of staff with more expertise. They should make this person aware of any concerns without delay.
  • The staff members who are most likely to observe behaviours around food or exercise should take the time to read the guidance notes here on signs that a pupil may have an eating disorder. These may include physical education or home economics teachers, and staff who spend time in the dining hall.

*  Next page: Schools health promotion, body confidence, diets, disordered eating and obesity prevention: what to do? *

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