May 13, 2019
Please note: This article discusses eating disorders which might be a trigger for some readers.
This week is mental health awareness week, and the theme this year is body image. Eating disorders (in particular Anorexia Nervosa) have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition. Predominately eating disorders develop during adolescence but they can occur at any age, including in young children. It’s estimated that there are 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder. To put that into perspective, if they all lived in the same place it would be the UK’s second largest city, over twice the size of Manchester.
Anorexia is just one of several diagnosable eating disorders, which includes conditions such Bulimia and Binge Eating. There are several risk factors for eating disorders, which include; a history of eating disorders in the family, receiving criticism around body image, a feeling of pressure to conform to a certain body image, low self-esteem, and sexual abuse.
Three quarters of people who experience an eating disorder are female. Many people believe this is due to the additional pressures society puts on girls in regards to body image, which are reinforced by the media. Catwalk models, Photoshoped magzine images, and more recently Snap Chat filters, all create unrealistic expectations around body image. However, it's important to note that eating disorders also effect men and the outcomes are just as serious.
Teachers are already overburdened with responsibilities which extend far beyond the mandate of what most would call ‘teaching’. But if you would like to act, here are three suggestions.
Educating children on body image will equip them to better monitor their own health and behaviour. It is also an essential step in eradicating stigma. It is important that you pitch your lesson at the appropriate level and take into consideration the specific needs of all the children present. In primary schools you can explore issues around nutrition and personal care. Help children to understand the importance of a healthy balanced diet, and develop a positive relationship with food. You might also want to explore the way the media influences how we see ourselves. It is up to your school to decide if you talk specifically about mental health illnesses. If you are going to do so it needs to be handled sensitively. The Beat, Mind, and NHS websites have lots of facts and information on eating disorders to help you plan a lesson and the PSHE Association also offers guidance on how to structure lessons on this topic. Make sure you consult with the SLT before you begin and that you feel confident in what you are doing. Alternatively, you may want to consider hiring an external trainer to come into the school.
No doubt this goes without saying. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that even casual name calling can have devastating consequences. Do not tolerate any form of body shaming, call-out body shaming for what it is whether in the classroom, or in the books that children read. Reading many popular non-fiction stories and viewing movies with a critical eye can open children’s eyes to the body shaming that occurs in everyday society and help them to stand up to it and develop a resilient attitude and sense of self-worth regardless of physical appearance. For example; bad people always looking a certain way. People who are unsuccessful in relationships or unpopular in school always looking a certain way. Use fiction texts that role model how children can behave in a positive and kind way.
The NHS website has a list of warning signs to watch out for, but you may want to consider more in-depth training. Mental Health First Aid England offer courses specifically designed for people who work with children.
Hopefully you found this information useful. On a personal note, I would recommend a Louis Theroux documentary called ‘Talking to Anorexia’. It is very humanising and gives meaningful insight into what it means to experience Anorexia. This is an adult documentary and probably not suitable for watching in class.
The charity Beat also provide adult and young people helplines for eating disorders. We have put their contact details below.
Help for adults
The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline.
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Help for young people
The Beat Youthline is open to anyone under 18.
Youthline: 0808 801 0711
Disclaimer: If you are going to discuss mental health in your school, you must ensure you do so in accordance with your school’s relevant policies. It is important to ensure that any discussion is appropriate for the age group and considers the specific situations of all children in the class. The facts in this article were taken from the Beat and NHS websites.