The Challenge of Tackling Eating Disorders Among Young People

This was originally published in the March 2014 edition of the Cardiff Times.

Eating disorders among young people are on the rise – 15 is currently the most common age of hospital admission for girls and 13 for boys, some even younger than five.

Some of the blame for this situation has been justifiably directed at so-called pro-anorexia and bulimia websites and other social media but it is not clear how to deal with them. As Rebecca Fields told the Guardian it would potentially be counter-effective to ban them, because that would drive people with eating disorders further into the shadows and away from potential help. This all makes a certain development in Plymouth quite interesting. Here, the local council has issued new guidance to help spot young people with eating disorders and support families coping with the condition. The guidance recommends schools have informed discussions about eating disorders. Importantly, these discussions should be supported with input from health professionals.

Simply, such a response reflects the complex reasons for eating disorders. These can be either a traumatic event such as bereavement or sexual abuse, bullying, uncertainty of sexual orientation or sexual attractiveness or academic, peer and media pressure. As Field further explains “With the rise of social media and the celebrity culture, people are being bombarded by these images of what seems to be the ideal body.” Consequently girl and boys post photos of themselves where their friends “like” them – or not. Sometimes they can be a combination of any of these factors. Therefore the ability to recognize the problem and take relevant steps before young people have to go to hospital is important. In this context the role of communication and dialogue is vital as the earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of both physical and emotional recovery.

Unfortunately like other mental health problems a significant level of misunderstanding exists among the general public.  One organization – incidentally the only nationwide organization focusing on eating disorders –  which attempts to tackle this misconception is Beat. Their aim is to change the thinking surrounding eating disorders by challenging the stereotypes and stigma that, like other mental illnesses, people with eating disorders face. They also campaign for better services and treatment and provide information, support and encouragement to seek treatment and recovery. Curiously, Beat currently provides higher estimates of eating disorders than those of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Despite this there may be positive news. A surge of counseling among young people with ChildLine perhaps suggests a greater awareness means more young people are seeking help. Indeed as Dr Nadia Micali, senior lecturer at UCL explained to the Independent “Social media is very new and we haven’t been able, as scientists, to fully examine the impact of social media and the internet. It’s one of those things where if it’s not controlled it could be harmful, but it potentially could be used by healthcare professionals in a good way.”

What I always personally remember from prominent news cases where children are failed by society is that a lack of connectivity between relevant bodies is a consistent and major factor. Consequently, removing the misconceptions surrounding eating disorders must be met by engaging young people through the multiple and complex avenues that can be its source and this requires schools, the media, health services and organizations such as Beat working in unity.

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