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What health professionals should know about eating disorders

Over the course of two years, I have met with 40 young women and men who have shared on film honest details about their experiences of eating disorders. Their hope is that sharing their stories will help other people who are similarly affected to feel less alone and encourage them to seek help.

The research shows that common myths about the illness have prevented many young people from getting the treatment and support they needed, from family, friends and even the health service.

During the course of their eating disorder, young people came into contact with many different types of health professionals including GPs, nurses, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dieticians, social workers and other support workers.

There are some things that health professionals should know when dealing with a young person living with and recovering from an eating disorder.

Anyone can have an eating disorder

Anyone can become ill with an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect people of all ages, backgrounds, sexualities, both men and women. You can’t tell if a person has an eating disorder by just looking at them.

First point of contact is often critical

This first contact with services was often a huge step for a young person. People often found it very difficult to talk about what was going on, trying to hide their problems and it could take months, even years, to seek help. The way they were treated at this point could have a lasting, positive or negative, impact.

Young people hoped that the health professionals would realise just how hard asking for help was and to help nurture and support their confidence to stay in contact with services.

Early intervention is key

Young people often felt that people struggled to recognise the psychological symptoms of eating disorders as well as the range of different eating disorders.

If those who haven’t yet developed a full-blown eating disorder could be recognised, they can also be helped earlier. This is critical, as the longer eating disorders are left undiagnosed and untreated, the more serious and harder to treat they can become.

Effective, early intervention could be achieved when health practitioners were knowledgeable, well trained, sensitive and proactive.

Eating disorders are about emotions and behaviours, not just about weight

A common myth that many of the young people had come across was the thought that people with eating disorders were always very underweight. This idea had made it harder for some to get treatment and support or even to be taken seriously by their doctor.

In some cases, young people felt that the only way for them to be taken seriously and be able to access eating disorder services was to lose more weight. This could have serious consequences; the more weight they lost, the harder it was for them to be able to seek or accept help.

See the whole person, not just the eating disorder

Once in contact with health services, above all else, young people wanted not just to be seen “as an eating disorder” but to be treated as a whole person. It was important that they felt treated as individuals and for health professionals to realise that everyone responded differently.

A good health professional also tried to engage young people on other things than just the eating disorder, hobbies or interests.

Respect the young person

Feeling respected, listened to and being given the space to explain things from their perspective was important for young people during treatment and recovery.

Professionals should take their time and find out what was going on for that particular person, not act on assumptions. Health professionals shouldn’t patronise or dismiss issues that were important to the person in front of them.

This research, funded by Comic Relief, has now been published on online at Youthhealthtalk.org.

Ulla Räisänen is a senior researcher with the health experiences research group at University of Oxford, and was responsible for conducting the study published on Youthhealthtalk.org