5 Tips for helping young people with eating disorders in schools (guest post)

Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner has kindly provided this guest post for the Axcis blog.

I always struggled quite a bit when I was growing up with my emotions. I hated feeling anything but particularly distressing things. I often felt quite lost, and alone. But being who I was, I would always try and put on that brave face. Push further forward and make myself feel okay. Maybe that was why I was so suited to Anorexia when she knocked on my door when I was 13 years old.

I didn’t really understand it at first, I didn’t understand why I had this voice in my head. But I liked it at the same time. I liked the fact that it gave me real purpose every single day. When I did what it told me to do I got this sense of achievement, value, satisfaction and it praised me. She made me believe that her way was the best way to live my life. It was like my little secret and I didn’t have to tell anyone else about it. I just kept it completely secret and that was the best part of it.

The deeper that relationship grew the more I longed for it and did what it wanted me to. I became completely fixated on making it happy all the time. When I didn’t do enough for it I would shut down, and feel guilty.

Little did I know that the Anorexia that I thought was my actual best friend was slowly but surely killing me. Sucking all life out of me. Fast forward those four years and I was an outpatient at CAMHs still feeling unable to do anything to tackle this. But now the Anorexia was not making me happy but instead making me completely miserable. I would lay in bed in the evenings completely lost in my own head. Feeling completely alone and struggling. All I wanted was for that voice in my head to stop. To stop beating me up, telling me I wasn’t doing enough… I had done what it wanted but that wasn’t enough anymore. Nothing was enough. I used to lay there in bed just wishing everything would stop.

After six months at CAMHs, with a failing heart, yellowing skin, my hair falling out, I was admitted to a mental health hospital. As I stood there in the entrance, tears streaming down my face I begged my Mum to give me one more chance to make this okay. By this point it was just too late.

What would have helped me?

I don’t want this to turn in to a blame game but a few things that would have helped:

  1. Having space to talk about how I felt; making space to sit and listen, phone free time when this is happening and really taking that time out to talk
  2. Learning about healthy eating and healthy exercise: we live in a society where everything is so focussed on calories and image. Where people are constantly being judged. We have a role to educate people about healthy eating and exercise but at the same time make sure that people are not getting fixated on calories. We need to get rid of the messaging that calories are a bad thing
  3. Having some understanding of mental health. This is crucial for everyone and we need to find a way to instil mental health in to everyday teaching and within the curriculum – this will help individuals build up their resilience to take on life

What can you do in your schools to help those with eating disorders?

We know that 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age (Mental Health Foundation).

We all have a duty to try and tackle this. We are living in a mental health epidemic where services are stretched beyond belief. Schools are often left having to pick up the pieces for those living with eating disorders who are not able to access services because they aren’t “underweight enough”.  

  1. Discuss wellbeing with your young person: this is about prevention! We know that a huge number of eating disorders escalate from emotional distress and it is important that schools make sure we have an open place to express emotions, and feelings without judgement
  2. Plan an awareness event so that your young people know can have a way to start this conversation. It is important we take a whole school approach to awareness activities making sure parents are also involved.
  3. If you are worried about someone reach out to them: this can be hard to do, but it is important we keep that line of communication open. Take them outside for a walk and ask them how they are feeling. Don’t assume you know the reasons they feel a certain way
  4. When young people have school trips be mindful of whether children will find packed lunches hard and need another choice of food
  5. Think about your healthy messages and diet chat across the school. This is crucial, we are bombarded all the time with messaging around dieting, calories and healthy eating and we need to make sure children know what messages to listen to i.e. they don’t see calories as all bad, and that we don’t have “good and bad foods”. We have a role to play in educating young people with healthy messaging around food and exercise

Where am I now?

I am now in recovery and have been since I entered that hospital eleven years ago. I managed my recovery pretty much since leaving hospital with one relapse, but now feel in a better place with my anorexia. I know that that voice in my head is not worth listening to, that it lies to me, beats me up and whatever it tells me is a load of rubbish. I have my coping mechanisms in place and I now use my story to help other people.

About Hope

Hope Virgo is the Author of Stand Tall Little Girl, and a multi award winning international leading advocate for people with eating disorders. Hope helps young people and employers (including schools, hospitals and businesses) to deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. She has been described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital, as “sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact”. Hope is also a recognised media spokesperson, having appeared on various platforms including BBC Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News. 

hopevirgo@hotmail.com; @Hope Virgo; Website: www.hopevirgo.com

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