Understanding Mental Health

High Risk Behaviours


Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders: A primer for School Professionals

The incidence of Eating Disorders, especially Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia, is believed to be on the increase: a growing number of people, mostly adolescent girls and young women suffer from these illnesses.

School Professionals play a key role in identifying those who are struggling with these problems, given that early detection often is associated with better outcomes.

The starvation, chaotic eating and purging strategies associated with eating disorders affect all aspects of an individual’s life including their physical health, their academic experience and their relationships with family and friends.

As Eating Disorders often develop during adolescence and early adulthood, the illness disrupts many developmental tasks associated with identity formation and autonomy which in turn has a significant influence on future development. Those individuals whose illness takes a more chronic course become increasingly frail and isolated.

Families are also negatively affected by these illnesses;  family relationships become more strained, family tensions often increase, and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness become more common.

Our society values performance, competition, body shape, and youthfulness. Eating Disorders tend to reflect the pursuit of these ideals at the expense of an individual‘s health, personal fulfillment and satisfaction.


Types of Eating Disorders

  1. Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by a highly restrictive eating pattern, compulsive exercising, an intense fear of becoming fat, disturbed body image and an inability to maintain normal body weight.

  2. Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by purging. A person with bulimia tends to be preoccupied with body shape and weight, tends to restrict food intake which leads to binge eating, evoking feeling of guilt which leads to purging behaviour (such as self induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics) or compulsive exercise.

  3. Compulsive overeating or Binge eating is characterized by overeating and using food to avoid feeling states, often leading to obesity.


Who is at risk for developing an Eating Disorder?

The cause of eating disorders is believed to be multidimensional; a variety of biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to its development. Some of the major risk factors that predispose an individual to developing an eating disorder include:

  1. Being female

  2. Having a perfectionist, rigid  and risk-avoiding  personality

  3. Excessive dieting

  4. Family history of obesity, eating disorders, substance abuse, or depression

  5. Sexual or physical abuse experiences

  6. Bullying and harassment experiences

  7. Competitive sports where body shape and size are a factor


Guidelines For School Professionals

  1. Be aware of the warning signs of an eating disorder (E.D.)

  2. Be compassionate yet straightforward:  Tell the student directly that you are concerned about him or her.  Present the specific reasons for your concern emphasizing health, apparent unhappiness, conflicts at school, low academic performance and obvious evidence of eating disorders, i.e., loss of weight, binging, purging, and compulsive exercising.

  3. Be patient:  It is important to understand that when you approach someone with an E.D., the person may not welcome your expression of concern and may even react with anger, hostility or denial. Be prepared that the student may need some time before accepting your concerns and taking your advice.

  4. Let the student know that you care and are willing to talk about eating behaviours when she/he is ready.

  5. Avoid commenting on his/her appearance and weight. Don’t dwell or engage in food related discussions.

  6. Examine honestly your own attitudes about body image, weight issues and size, so as not to convey any fat prejudice, or exacerbate the student’s desire to be thin.

  7. Know your limits and avoid over-involvement in trying to help a student with an E.D.

  8. Encourage the student to seek professional help.


For more complete list of warning signs, and do’s and don’ts, please refer to the following web sites:

Prepared by: Dorita Shemie, MSW, social worker, Eating Disorders Program, Douglas Mental Health Institute



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