When a student who is normally engaged and motivated suddenly has trouble paying attention and seems withdrawn, teachers are often quick to notice. It might be tempting to write this off as just laziness or a passing “phase.” Yet this might be a sign of a larger problem that is disrupting the student’s ability to stay engaged in the classroom. In fact, social withdrawal and isolation is often one of the first signs of a possible eating disorder.
It’s estimated that about 5.2% of adolescent girls have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa often begin around age 12 or 13 and they have one of the highest mortality rates among mental illnesses. The NEDA estimates that individuals ages 15 to 24 with anorexia have a 10 times higher rate of dying when compared to their peers. Clearly, it’s critical that educators be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders so they can facilitate an early intervention.
The Truth about Common Eating Disorder Myths
When you hear the term “eating disorder,” what comes to mind? Often we picture a very thin young woman wearing baggy clothes … but eating disorders don’t always fit this stereotype. For example, a student struggling with bulimia nervosa may appear to be of normal weight or even overweight, even though they are regularly binge eating and then purging. The National Institute of Mental Health reminds us that it’s not always young women dealing with eating disorders; while they are twice as common in young women, many young men struggle with this, too.
What to Look For
Instead of relying on the stereotypical image of eating disorders, learn to recognize the common physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of eating disorders. According to eating disorder specialists at McCallum Place, social isolation is one of the first signs that a student has an eating disorder. This may be because they are trying to hide their eating behaviors, or they have experienced teasing or comments about their appearance or eating habits.
Other common physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of an eating disorder, according to NEDA, are:
- Frequent complaints about body image
- Incessant talk about weight, food or appearance
- Rigid attitudes and behaviors towards eating
- Focus on perfection
- Little or flat emotion
- Social isolation
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Complaints of abdominal pain or feeling bloated
- Feeling faint, cold or tired (may have blue hands and/or feet)
- Calluses on knuckles from self-induced vomiting
- Dry hair or skin, or thinning hair
- Skipping meals, throwing away food
- Exercising for long periods of time
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide appearance
How You Can Help
As educators, you have a real opportunity to provide help and hope to students who are struggling with eating disorders. Keep in mind these students are struggling with emotional pain and feel like their lives are out of control. They need a supportive adult to listen and help them find hope for a healthier way of living.
The Florida School Counselor Association recommends avoiding comments on the student’s weight and appearance. Instead, express your concern for the student’s general wellbeing by gently pointing out some of the changes you’ve noticed, in a non-judgmental way. For example, “I’ve noticed you seem quieter and sadder than usual. How is everything going?”
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends the following strategies for helping students whom you suspect might have an eating disorder:
- Create an environment for students where they feel safe from harassment
- Focus on skill-building and healthy habits rather than weight management (in health and education classes)
- Create activities that are not dependent on the student’s physical abilities or appearance
- Foster an open conversation about eating disorders in general terms and about where to seek help
- Know where to refer a student if they need help (the school counselor, school psychologist, school administrator, etc.)
Think of yourself as a bridge that connects the student to resources like the school counselor or an outside counselor who can help them explore treatment options. A student struggling with an eating disorder likely feels alone in their struggle and, by serving as a bridge, you can give them the opportunity to find the help – and hope — they need.