There are several reasons why it is advantageous to detect, support and treat eating disorders cases as early as possible and to help you understand them I’ll bring you back to my trusty broken leg analogy.
If a pupil had a broken leg and it went unnoticed and untreated, a few things would happen:
- The injury would cause pain and suffering in the short term
- The injury would prevent the pupil from participating in sport and athletics until it was treated
- The pain of the injury would distract the pupil from their academic work and make them less inclined to socialise
- The injury would worsen, perhaps healing incorrectly, meaning that there might be a need for more serious intervention in the long term such as an operation or a long course of physiotherapy
- The pupil may never fully recover from the injury, perhaps being prone to further breaks, or being left with a limp
And it’s almost exactly the same with an eating disorder. Like a broken leg, if it’s picked up right at the start and treated appropriately, the chances are that the pupil will make a fairly quick and full recovery, but left untreated, the impact of an eating disorder both short and long term worsens.
So here are some of the reasons why it’s so important to recognise, support and treat eating disorders of any type, as early as possible:
Decrease the psychological and physical suffering in the short term
Like an untreated broken leg, an untreated eating disorder will be causing untold psychological and sometimes physical pain to the sufferer. Many people opt for a ‘watchful waiting approach’ observing a pupil over a few weeks to see if things get better or worse. I’d never advocate this – you wouldn’t do it with a leg injury, you’d be into A&E to check if it was broken and get it fixed up as quickly as possible. If you’re ever in doubt, just consider the fact that every single day that a young person is dealing with their eating disorder alone will be a day that involves pain and suffering.
Decrease the impact of the disease on social and academic development
Eating disorders have a huge impact on young people’s ability to participate fully at school as they are preoccupied with food and, in the case of some eating disorders, their brain may be deprived of nutrients making it physically harder for them to process academic work. Added to this, young people with eating disorders tend to socially isolate themselves more and more as the disease progresses. Often distancing themselves from lifelong friends and family and choosing not to go out with them or even talk to them.
As such, the longer an eating disorder is allowed to continue, the more it will impact on a young person’s social and academic development.
Increase the chance of a positive outcome
There is increasing evidence that early detection of eating disorders can significantly increase the chances of a positive outcome. Young people who are treated early on in the disease tend to make fuller and longer lasting recoveries. Conversely, there are many well documented cases of people who battle with eating disorders throughout their whole life as they didn’t receive support or treatment for a long time after the onset of their disease.
Treatment also tends to be swifter and less complicated for young people who have only recently started suffering, for example the chances of hospitalization or medication are far lower.
Decrease the long-term physical impacts of the disease
Eating disorders can have a wide range of long-term physical impacts such as infertility, brittle bones and heart disease. The long term prognosis is far rosier for a young person whose illness is detected and treated quickly. They are also far less likely to suffer significant relapses later on.
So how can you detect eating disorders early on?
There are certain factors which will put pupils more at risk than others of developing eating disorders, it’s worth familiarising yourself with these risk factors and working out whether there are pupils you should keep an eye on.
There are lots of physical and behavioural warning signs that might indicate a young person is suffering from an eating disorder – familiarise yourself with these and be prepared to approach a pupil if you think they may need support.
You can find information on risk factors, warning signs and talking to pupils of concern on this site – I’ve listed some helpful links below. For a full list of articles, click here.