If you recognize the signs of an eating disorder in a student, a friend, or your child, how you respond and intervene is crucial. Once you become aware of the issue, you have a responsibility to address it. Many aren’t sure what that next step is and are left asking, “Now what?” Well, I have answers.
The first step is to meet with the individual to discuss your concerns. When you meet, the individual’s parents should be present as well as another person who you identify as being invested in this individual’s well-being and who will provide needed encouragement and support. This could be a coach, nurse, teacher, counselor, principal, or a close friend.
During this meeting, it’s important to follow these three basic steps:
1) Empathize and connect.
Empathize by showing your concern, and connect by disclosing specific behaviors that you and others have observed, e.g. “I am concerned about you and have noticed you are eating alone at lunch every day.” Educate the individual by sharing with them that eating disorders are serious and complex illnesses that affect their body, thoughts and emotions, and personal relationships. Inform the individual know that eating disorders require professional attention and that the sooner they get help, the better their prognosis. Most importantly, make sure the individual knows that there is help and that they can get better. The next step is devising a plan of action. Motivate the individual by involving them in the creation of this plan. Let their voice be heard, but be sure you are firm about some important next steps, including assessment and treatment.
When confronted about their behaviors, it’s typical for an individual to respond by minimizing or totally denying those behaviors. They may express shame or ambivalence about giving up the behaviors. Anger and fear are also very common responses at this stage. When you shed light on the behaviors you’ve observed, the individuals’ family members and friends may also display denial, shame, guilt, fear, and anxiety. Anticipate these responses, but don’t let them prevent you from intervening when you recognize the signs.
To respond to the increasing prevalence of eating disorders among adolescents and the need for interventions initiated at the school level, Kimberli McCallum, MD and members of the Missouri Eating Disorders Association (MOEDA) Board of Directors have developed a much-needed course for nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists, coaches, etc. that provides education on identifying and appropriately intervening with students that show signs that they may have an eating disorder. If you are interested in bringing this course, entitled Busting Eating Disorder Myths: How to Recognize and Help At-Risk Students, to your school, please e-mail Dr. Brewer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Kathryn Brewer, PhD, LCPC, CCTP, Clinical Director McCallum Place Kansas City
Reference: McCallum, K. & MOEDA. (2015). Busting Eating Disorder Myths: How to Recognize and Help At-Risk Students School Curriculum.