A group of Canadian researchers offer practical suggestions for preventing eating disorders in schools, and how to identify and work with at-risk students.
Issues with current eating disorder educations
Researchers suggest that the current eating disorder efforts in schools pay undue attention to the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, whereas more attention is needed to cultivate healthy attitude and behaviors among students.
The attention on “signs and symptoms” of eating disorder may even bring unwanted negative effects, because there is a risk of teaching dangerous eating disordered behavior to “impressionable youth.”
As well, practices such as weighing students, comparing athletic ability, and discussing caloric and fat content of food in school classes need to be eliminated to prevent the development of negative thoughts and behaviors in regard to body image and food intake.
How to identify at-risk students
School counselors may tend to look for extreme bingeing and purging behaviors to detect an eating disorder; however, these often are private behaviors that may be well hidden from family and friends.
So we need to be aware of a larger set of highly observable behaviors that may signal the presence of eating disorder.
Other than dieting, behavioral warning signs may include excess intake of low-fat or “healthy” foods (e.g., diet drinks, shakes, energy bars, herbal or nutritional supplements); counting calories and fat grams; vegetarianism; fasting; obsessive rumination about food; skipping meals or refusing to eat; avoiding food in social situations; complaining of food allergies or hypoglycemia; substance abuse, and becoming the family cook without eating what he or she has made.
How to work with at-risk students
It is very difficult to communicate concerns to students who may have an eating disorder, because students often do not know what to say, and may be afraid of offending the school counselor.
The course of actions recommended by researchers include three important factors:
Demonstrating support and concern
Expressing empathy and understanding
Telling the truth
School counselors can start their initial communication using nonjudgemental, empathetic and truthful statements; for instance, “Susan, you seem so tired and exhausted, and you know I care about you. … I need to insist that you are not well. … Please let us take you for some help.”
Often times, counselors may see denials and resistance from students, who may insist that everything is fine, and that his or her weight loss is rational or necessary. Such denials or resistance are not necessarily targeted at counselors, and should not stop a concerned adult from pursuing further help for the students.
One way counselors can help at-risk students is to refer them to a professionally trained individuals who can properly assess them and, if needed, begin the recovery process.
Angela D. Bardick, Kerry B. Bernes, Ariana R. M. McCulloch, Kim D. Witko, Jennifer W. Spriddle and Allison R. Roest. 2004. Eating Disorder Intervention, Prevention, and Treatment: Recommendations for School Counselors. Professional School Counseling, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 168-175.
GenPsych PC offers an eating disorders program at its Brick location. This program will help you break free from the debilitating rules and obsessions of disordered eating and thinking so that you can have a more peaceful relationship with food, your body, and your life. For more information please click to visit the Eating Disorders Program web page.