Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are associated with significant physical complications. Eating disorders not only involve considerable psychological impairment and distress, but they are also associated with major wide-ranging and serious medical complications, which can affect every major organ in the body.
Eating disorders occur in both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and from all cultural backgrounds. Eating disorders are estimated to affect approximately 9% of the Australian population and approximately 15% of Australian women experience an eating disorder during their lifetime.
The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians sets out nationwide objectives for Australian schools that all Australian Education Ministers have agreed to. According to this declaration ‘schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians’. One of the Educational Goals outlined in the declaration is that ‘all young Australians … have a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. Hence, mental and physical health education is critical within all Australian schools and teachers play an important role in promoting health and wellbeing within the school environment.
Education about body image, disordered eating, the risks of dieting and eating disorders is an important aspect of all school health and wellbeing programs. Having the correct information and education about eating disorders can help prevent an eating disorder from developing, ease the suffering of a person in the early stages of an eating disorder, and reduce the stigma and misconceptions that surround eating disorders. Efforts to promote positive body image and healthy lifestyle choices should be integrated into every school’s teaching program as a general practice with the aim of proactively helping to prevent eating disorders from arising rather than simply responding reactively to existing issues.
People who are identified and treated early in the course of an eating disorder have a significantly better chance of recovery when compared with those who have been living with an eating disorder longer; this is particularly relevant for young people. However, the median duration of treatment delay is extraordinarily long (10 years for those meeting criteria for bulimia nervosa and 15 years for those meeting criteria for anorexia nervosa). In Australia there has been a growth in mental health awareness and active efforts by government, media and the wider community to reduce stigma and improve mental health literacy. With the two peak periods for the onset of an eating disorder occurring at puberty and late adolescence, schools are in a powerful position to help with these efforts.
Evidence-based resources for education professionals working in schools have been developed to assist them in understanding eating disorders, promoting health and wellbeing within their schools, recognising and responding to eating disorders, and supporting students who are undergoing treatment for an eating disorder using a whole- school approach.
A number of resources and other evidence based information on eating disorders are available at: http://www.nedc.com.au/teachers-and-schools.
The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) is an initiative of the federal Department of Health and Ageing and a collaboration of people and organisations with an expertise and/or interest in eating disorders. NEDC aims to improve the health outcomes of people with, or at risk of developing an eating disorder in Australia, recognising the need to take a long-term approach to promotion, prevention and early intervention for eating disorders.