Eating Disorders Awareness Week: the importance of early intervention

24 February 2017

By Hannah Lewis, Policy Intern at the Mental Health Foundation and postgraduate student in Cultural and Global Perspectives in Mental Health

Eating Disorders Awareness Week provides the opportunity to challenge widespread misconceptions and to acknowledge the vast health and social complexities associated with eating disorders.

This year’s theme of early intervention provides a much-needed platform from which to explore new avenues to support the early identification of problems in order to prevent them from developing into a wholly pervasive disease.

In order to produce effective early intervention and prevention strategies, eating disorders need to be better understood by both health professionals and society as a whole, so treatments with a more holistic approach can be offered to address the eating disorder’s complexities and co-morbidities. For too long, services and practitioners have only reacted when the disorder is in full swing which has dangerous physical implications for the patient. This is ineffective, and action needs to be taken prior to a crisis point, where possible.

Anorexia nervosa

The lifetime presence of anorexia nervosa has increased by 60% using the new definition in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual 5 (the manual used by psychiatrists when diagnosing people with mental health problems).

Find out more about anorexia nervosa

While we know that accessing support and treatment within the first three years of developing an eating disorder results in better health outcomes, mounting pressures on NHS resources means we urgently need to increase our awareness of protective and risk factors, which includes the concept of body image.

Supporting positive body image

Supporting a positive body image mentality can support varied health benefits. It has been identified as a protective factor in decreasing the risk of an eating disorder developing, as well as being central to overcoming eating disorders. We need to address the misconception that positive body image corresponds with vanity, and is therefore trivial. In fact, positive body image promotes a sense of self, which is central to our identity and how we feel about ourselves, both inside and out.  A healthy body image can support greater self-esteem, personal acceptance, and generate a healthy outlook on life.

A progressive move in the field has been the emergence of interventions which focus on body functionality. By emphasising the properties of the body, what it can do and how it functions, we move away from the idea that appearance and attractiveness are key pillars of positive body image.

A study in the Netherlands has shown that people who undergo a body functionality-focused intervention reported greater body appreciation and satisfaction. To quote Tarryn Brummfitt, leader of the Embrace body image movement, "This body of mine is not an ornament, it’s a vehicle."

More about eating disorders

Between 600,000 and 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.

Find out more in our A-Z guide

It is promising to see that the government recognise the importance of body image education. The Be Real Campaign, which is sponsored by organisations including the Government Equalities Office and the YMCA, recently launched a toolkit for teachers and schools to promote positive body image and good health over appearance anxieties. This programme directly addresses key issues highlighted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image ‘s report titled Reflections on Body Image, and aims to achieve ‘real education, real health, and real diversity’.

Body image education means schools have a responsibility for including mental health and wellbeing in the curriculum so that from a young age, children are informed and prepared to adopt positive coping strategies, opposed to negative ones which can include disordered eating. Teachers are well placed to identify early warning signs of an eating disorder, making it vital that they are appropriately trained to intervene when an issue is identified.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a crucial time for us to stop viewing eating disorders as exclusive to white, middle-class girls striving to be thin like models in magazines.  We need to acknowledge that these disorders are a response to deep-rooted emotional distress reflecting how we feel about ourselves.

Mental health education in schools is vital to encourage young people to talk, to encourage healthy coping strategies and, importantly, to help to shape positive self-reflective mindsets. We urgently need to shift our attention to look at the root causes of such distress if we are to address the startling increase in eating disorder prevalence rates.