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Eating Disorders Health

that the child is not competent to make decisions about treatment.” It isn’t just school age children who are aff ected by the “teenage disease”, which some believe has been fanned by the Pro-Ana websites which encourage suff erers to compete to lose weight and idolise skinny celebs like Nicole Richie.

Anorexia is found among university students too. Some students will arrive with an eating disorder but often it starts here. “There are many reasons why anorexia can be triggered at university,” says Louise Dunne of Beat, the

eating disorders charity. “Young people have to adapt to a completely new environment, make new friends and are expected to stand on their own two feet, as well as cope with academic demands. It can trigger the onset of an eating disorder as the person struggles to keep control over his or her life.”

Counselling for students at university is available but provision is “patchy” and rarely specialised. “Not many universities off er specifi c help for people with eating disorders,” says Dunne. So Beat is actively promoting the establishment of volunteer-lead self-help groups in UK universities. There are now 13 groups, run by an affi liated organisation SRSH

Lauren Knox, 23, developed anorexia nervosa at university but after a fl atmate gave her a book on the illness she sought help and got her life back. “I was always someone who pushed myself and worked really hard to achieve top grades I was top in music, drama and history and I liked being in the limelight. I didn’t

Lauren Knox has fully recovered

(Student Run Self Help) and more are planned. “This is defi nitely the way forward, as long as the groups are run according to very specifi c guidelines with fi rm ground rules,” explains Dunne. No numbers are allowed (no weight competitions or


of skinny models

encourage young girls with AN to believe that their weight is normal (above)

calories) and the meetings provide a confi dential space for people to talk about and share their experiences. Eating disorders aren’t going to go away but at least parents can be reassured that independent schools and universities are getting better at dealing with Anorexia. “A great deal has changed over the last 20 to 30 years and schools are now fantastically safe and secure environments for children and young people with AN,” says Neil Roskilly, of the Independent Schools Association. “Schools are often the fi rst place where people seek assistance and that means we need to take our

responsibilities seriously. Lots of eyes have been opened.”

For more information Beat youth helpline 0845 634 7650

(Mon-Fri 4.30pm-8.30pm, Sat 1pm – 4.30pm) IOP website www.eatingresearch. com

NICE guidelines Further reading Mum, Please Help Me, by Karen Phillips and Dr Irina Webster, (Clearview Books, £9.99),

Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder; Janet Treasure, Grainne Smith & Anna Crane.

‘The pressure to be perfect sent my weight plummeting’

think about my weight until I was 17 and went to a dance summer school but the workouts were really intensive so I lost weight and people noticed. Suddenly, I was more aware of my fi gure, how I could control it. I was happy at my school and I had a stable family life so it didn’t become a problem until I came under greater pressure at

university. I missed home a lot – I am very close to my parents and my younger sister – and I found the academic work quite stressful. I thought that I wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t excelling. There wasn’t much support and I felt quite isolated with my problems. I was tipped over the edge when I ended up in hospital after a bout of food poisoning. After that, I started to categorise “good food” and “bad food” and restricted my intake. It was gradual at fi rst, like missing lunch, but then became obsessive with calorie counting and food diary keeping. It was only when my friend alerted me that I went to see my GP and got specialist help and it took about a year for me to recover. Now I am a normal weight, and just about to get married. My life has really turned around.”

What exactly is an eating disorder? The expert explains…

Eating disorders are mental illnesses and are associated with very high levels of physical illness, psychological distress, deterioration in quality of life and

even death. Most suff erers of eating disorders experience a great deal of shame and confusion about the disorder and so may ignore the physical and mental deterioration they experience. They are clearly defi ned and fall

into three types, Anorexia Nervosa (when people are underweight but may also binge and vomit), Bulimia Nervosa (normal weight people who binge and vomit) and Atypical Eating Disorders. The person with an eating disorder will eat abnormally, use other harmful behaviours to control their weight and develop characteristic psychological attitudes. Abnormal eating and other behaviours include binge eating, vomiting, using laxatives or diet pills, skipping meals or not eating for eight hours or more during the day on a regular basis. The characteristic attitudes are to do with desperately needing to have control over food and weight to the extent that it is described as a life and death matter. There are several causes of eating

disorders. Research has shown that people are vulnerable because of certain inherited personality characteristics including perfectionism being a worrier and diffi culties with self-esteem. Currently there are several biological factors being researched, including brain functioning that is altered in people vulnerable to eating disorders when they starve or diet. Psychological factors, such as traumatic events and diffi culties in childhood will also directly aff ect self-esteem. Signifi cant events can then trigger eating problems. Western societal messages, valuing thinness, extreme dietary restraint or physical perfection as measurements of self- worth, encourage dieting and can lead to eating disorders in vulnerable people. How can we spot them? Signs

include skipping meals or social eating, avoiding food groups, drinking a lot of water, chewing gum, obsession with food, moodiness, secretiveness, body obsession. It’s important to realise that a lot of these signs may easily just be normal adolescence, but when they occur together, and persist, then it’s important to consider the possibility of an eating disorder emerging. Dr Adrienne Key is Consultant psychiatrist, Clinical Director Eating Disorder Services,Priory Hospital, Roehampton

Autumn 2011 FirstEleven 59

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