There are more than 30 million people diagnosed with an eating disorder, yet only one in 10 individuals receives treatment in their lifetime. In the past decade, eating disorder hospitalization has risen 120% for kids under the age of 12, and recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as well as political and cultural stresses have further led to an increase in instances of disordered eating in children.
The harmful behaviors associated with eating disorders not only negatively impact students’ mental health, but also their physical health, causing severe risk to heart health, brain function, and hormone regulation—the development of which are critical to students’ long-term, lifelong health. Eating disorders are also associated with risks to students’ physical safety, with 30% of individuals who engage in binge and purge behaviors also engaging in self-harm behaviors such as cutting.
Identifying the Disorder
There are four main eating disorders that are commonly seen in youth: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and orthorexia. Anorexia involves restriction or avoidance of eating and is one of the most commonly identified eating disorders in a school setting. Orthorexia is another eating disorder that is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s youth and is characterized by a superiority of food choice and perceived health, which is often done through excessive exercising or the adoption of trendy diets. Bulimia and binge eating share similarities, with repetitive excessive eating being a behavior of both disorders, while bulimia is also characterized by purging behaviors.
Students who are struggling with an eating disorder are often easy to identify in the classroom, as undereating and lack of nutrients can lead to lack of focus, fatigue, and/or fainting. When a student doesn’t eat for the whole school day, they may find themselves distracted by hunger. Conversely, a student with an eating disorder who does eat during the school day may become preoccupied by the guilt they feel toward eating and the plan they have to exercise or purge later to compensate for that meal.
Currently, the prevalence of eating disorders has risen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, political stress, social justice reform, and other traumatic and stressful events that have occurred throughout 2020. Social media trends that reference a “quarantine 15” weight gain and a general obsession over excessively fit influencers has increased fat-phobic messaging in the media. Social isolation has caused many students to lose confidence and become overly focused on themselves, leading to the emergence of eating disorder behaviors. Additionally, students are experiencing more anxiety than ever, resulting in feelings of loss of control and a desire to regain control—through food, exercise, or other practices that lead to disordered eating.
As students become more overwhelmed with their circumstance and begin to exhibit disordered eating behaviors, it’s crucial that educators and parents know how to offer support and get them the diagnosis and treatment they need. Disordered eating is most often identified in late elementary school and early middle school, but disordered thinking can be seen as early as first through third grade, with 42% of girls in this age group expressing that they want to be thinner.
Educators and parents can support students by learning more about eating disorders and working to erase the stigma associated with these disorders, so students feel more comfortable asking for help and discussing their struggles. Campus hotlines, such as Gaggle’s SpeakUp for Safety tipline, give students a trusted place to voice their concerns about peers who may be experiencing disordered eating, enabling them to protect their peers without damaging friendships. Additionally, therapy can be an invaluable tool for helping students with eating disorders, and Gaggle Therapy is an accessible way for students to receive support services discreetly through teletherapy.
To learn more about eating disorders and how to support struggling students, check out our recent Student Wellness Series webinar featuring Dr. Lisa Strohman and Mary Padden from Digital Citizen Academy.