Eating disorders advice from Beat: opening up dialogues with young people

27th février 2017

Beat is the UK’s leading eating disorders charity and is the only nationwide organisation providing information, support and help to people affected by eating disorders. The charity’s activities are centred around raising awareness and understanding of eating disorders. To raise awareness of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017, Beat, an online safety partner of Impero, have written this guest blog offering eating disorders advice designed to help education staff open up a dialogue with a young person about this sensitive issue.

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect anyone of any age, gender, or background. They include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, as well as eating disorders that do not entirely match the diagnostic criteria for these, but are equally serious. These may be diagnosed as “Eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS) or “Other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED).

Eating disorders can develop as a result of a huge number of factors. Many, including bullying, peer pressure, troubles with friendships, and stress, can be found within the school environment. New students may be vulnerable, as times of upheaval like moving schools can also play a role.

Behaviour such as missing meals or purging may be more easily carried out at school than at home, and some warning signs might come through in school work or behaviour. For example, personality traits often associated with sufferers of anorexia include perfectionism, need for control, and hyper-sensitivity to criticism. Anorexia may impact concentration and decision-making, and all eating disorders can cause tiredness, depression, and anxiety. This doesn’t mean everyone with these traits has an eating disorder, and not everyone with an eating disorder will exhibit these traits. However, these are things you can look out for, along with the terms that could be flagged by Impero’s software.

The sooner someone gets the help they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. Talking can be an essential first step, and the person’s community often plays a big part in helping them get better.


Approaching someone you’re worried about

  • Eating disorders are difficult to broach. Like other mental illnesses, they are surrounded by misconceptions, stigma and stereotypes. They also manifest in behaviour that the person may hide due to shame or fear of judgment. On the other hand, the sufferer may not realise or want to admit there’s anything wrong.
  • You might feel worried about making things worse, but it is often the case that, if they are approached sensitively, people with eating disorders are glad someone has noticed they are struggling.
  • The person who speaks with a student should be someone the student knows, trusts, and may feel able to open up to. Whether this is someone within the school environment or whether a parent or guardian is involved should be a decision made about students as individuals. If it is a staff member, it should be someone trained to deal with vulnerable young people.


When speaking to the student, here are some key things to remember:

  • Your role is not to diagnose an eating disorder, but having a concern about a student based on signs and symptoms they are displaying is enough to initiate a conversation.
  • Make sure the conversation is private, safe, and non-threatening. Don’t get angry or accusatory – if the person does have an eating disorder, they haven’t done anything wrong.
  • Avoid mentioning food or weight, and don’t comment on their appearance. Remember that eating disorders are about emotional issues.
  • Be clear about your role and duty of care from the start, and tell the student you are concerned about them. Offer one or two observations about behaviour that has concerned you. Be careful not to list too many things, as the student may feel they have been “watched”.
  • Avoid direct questions relating to eating disorders. Use open questions to encourage the student to talk, and show empathy and support.
  • Be aware that they may be angry or upset when you try to help. They may feel like you have uncovered their secret, or are interfering unnecessarily in their life. If they are not open to talking, you could offer them some resources to look at in their own time.
  • Do not make judgements and do not make promises you cannot keep, such as confidentiality.
  • The student may confide that they are concerned about their own behaviour and ask for support. Ask the student what kind of support they would like, advise about the limitations of your role, and explore if they have told anyone else.
  • Encourage the student to seek further support. Ideally, they should talk with a professional with expertise in diagnosing eating disorders. It would be preferable if a family member was informed, but again, this decision is best made on an individual basis.


Supporting a student with an eating disorder

Often students undergoing treatment are still able to attend school, and there are things that should be done to ensure they are safe and comfortable:

  • Inform staff members and keep them updated. Hospital appointments and other parts of treatment may mean the student is sometimes late or needs to leave early, and they shouldn’t be quizzed in front of others. Teachers may need to consider the student’s needs when planning lessons, as references to body image or food can be triggering.
  • People with eating disorders often have low self-esteem, so anything that can build their self-worth will be helpful.
  • It may be necessary to make special arrangements around mealtimes, such as allowing a parent or guardian to be present to help.
  • Involve the student in decisions about how the school will help. Ask about their needs – they may have ideas you hadn’t thought of.
  • Ensure there is always someone for them to confide in.
  • Make sure anyone involved in the student’s recovery, including staff, friends, and siblings at the school, has access to the support they need as well.


Other resources where you can find eating disorders advice from Beat

Beat, the UK’s eating disorders charity, is a good starting point if you want to learn more or if you want to provide a student with information and support. As well as their website, Beat’s resources include:

  • Literature about eating disorders.
  • A helpline team that can direct you to other information and services that may be useful, or just listen if you need to talk.
  • Message boards, providing a safe, carefully moderated space for sufferers to talk anonymously with people in similar situations.
  • Help Finder service that allows people to search for treatment clinics, counsellors, support groups, and more in their area.
  • Training, including courses designed to be delivered in schools to help staff understand eating disorders.


Impero’s partnership with Beat

Impero partnered with Beat over four years ago and, since then, have worked together to continually develop, improve and refine Impero’s keyword detection library based on the issue of eating disorders. The keyword detection functionality available in our flagship solution, Impero Education Pro, scans for any instances of keywords, terms, phrases, abbreviations or acronyms that may indicate potential risk; screen captures or video recordings of any flagged activity, along with a glossary definition, help staff to put the incident into context in line with the student’s wider online and offline behaviour.

If Impero Education Pro helps identify that a child possibly has an eating disorder, then the advice and tips provided by Beat above may help to open up a dialogue with the student around this sensitive issue.