There is a much perpetrated myth that teaching young people about eating disorders will make them many times more likely to develop one. This simply isn’t true. Eating disorders are highly complex mental health illnesses and not something which will simply develop overnight as a result of a PSHE lesson. Teaching young people (and their teachers) about eating disorders may make the incidence of eating disorders appear to increase within your school, but that is because cases which may have previously gone unrecognised may now be picked up. That is a good thing as it means these young people who had previously slipped below the radar are now receiving much needed support.
Pupils will realise you are knowledgeable and think it’s an important topic
A key benefit of taking the time to teach your students about eating disorders is that this will make them realise that you think eating disorders are an important topic, and one that concerns you. It will also help them to realise that you are knowledgeable on the topic as long as you have prepared appropriately. Two key barriers to young people talking about their own, or their friends’ eating disorders to their teachers are that they believe that teachers do not understand eating disorders and will therefore be unable to help, and that they also think that their teacher will think it is unimportant or that they are over-reacting. By teaching your students about eating disorders you can quickly overcome these barriers and make pupils far more likely to confide in you with any concerns they may have.
What you should actually teach
You should teach pupils about the three major eating disorders and their warning signs. You should explore why people might suffer from these illnesses and try to tackle the stigma and taboo associated with mental health issues. It is also very helpful to teach students about eating disorder warning signs and give them some clear direction on where they can go for help and support if they are concerned about themselves or a friend.
What you should NOT do is go into too much detail about the ins and outs of the illness as this can prove triggering for anyone in your group who may be struggling with eating disordered thoughts. Whilst it is not possible to cause an eating disorder by teaching young people about them, you could easily exacerbate an existing condition by:
- Talking about specific weights – an eating disordered pupil may try to ‘beat’ any weight you’ve talked about
- Showing pictures which glamorise eating disorders – showing a lot of pictures of e.g. models who are ‘too thin’ may actually work more like ‘thinspiration’ for young people who may not find the images disturbing, instead considering them beautiful and aspirational.
- Talking about specific weight loss or purging techniques – a young person who is struggling with an eating disorder may never have thought of e.g. taking laxatives to further control their weight until they heard the idea in your class. Just make sure you’re not providing a kind of ‘how to’ guide.
Pupils will value knowing how best to support a friend
You can also give pupils some guidance on how they could support a friend who was struggling with an eating disorder, or who they are concerned may have a problem. They will really value this advice and will often act on it if they have concerns. You should work hard to encourage pupils that one of the most supportive things they can do is inform a supportive adult at school or home and you may need to explore reasons why a pupil may or may not choose to do this. This can be a really good opportunity to discuss any concerns pupils might have in talking to an adult about this type of concerns and put straight any misconceptions and take on board valuable feedback. You can also teach pupils that they can support their friends by doing things such as:
- Never allowing weight related bullying or teasing
- Giving their friend plenty of time to talk
- Standing by their friend but allowing them a little distance if they need it
- Forgiving their friend if they are rude, difficult or unsociable
- Not commenting their friend’s weight or appearance – you can practice paying compliments using other attributes instead
If you have a pupil returning to school following eating disorder treatment
If a pupil has been absent from school for a period of time following eating disorders treatment and they are due to return then it is vital to prepare pupils as well as teachers for their return. Their peers are likely to have a huge number of questions and will usually be keen to support their friend but may not know how. You should discuss with the returning pupil exactly who they want to know what about their illness. You can also give them the opportunity to talk to their peers about their illness themselves e.g. in a tutor session if this is something they’d like to do and which their doctors feel would be appropriate. If you decide to do this you will need to plan the session carefully, mediate it tightly and allow the pupil to opt out at any point, or decline to answer any questions they feel less than 100% comfortable with.
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