How to help students with eating disorders.

How can education providers identify a possible eating disorder in students, and how can they offer support?

How to identify and help students with eating disorders.

I’m not a teacher, nor have I ever had the desire to become one. Even the thought of one day being a lecturer at a local university sends my stomach into flips. It’s not that I hate the idea of teaching, it’s all the responsibility that comes with it. This is especially true in regard to the responsibility surrounding mental health.

My sister is a qualified teacher. When asked if they had any sort of mental health training, she informed me that there had been next to nothing on the subject of mental health in schools. Although briefly covered in university, Emma stated that ‘training’ was on the job.

Having dealt with some troubled children and teenagers during the course of her short career, she’s adamant that the quality of mental health among her students has been significantly more troubling than she had anticipated.

“Mental health issues are becoming more prevalent within schools and universities than ever before.”

This is in line with statistics released by The World Health Organisation. Twenty percent of the world’s children and adolescents suffer from mental health issues. According to WHO, about half of all mental disorders begin before the age of fourteen. That’s a hell of a lot of young people who are left suffering from a very young age.

In regards to eating disorders, although they can affect anyone of any age, young people are particularly vulnerable. Fifty percent of all those who have experienced an eating disorder will never recover fully, therefore it’s imperative that these disorders are spotted and treated quickly. Teachers, lecturers, and staff within learning environments are in a prime location to be able to spot the signs of an eating disorder, and it’s important that these issues are acknowledged and addressed correctly.

I’m doubtful that there are many people out there who have never heard of the term ‘eating disorder‘. However, in case you haven’t, or simply want to find out more, then please visit the NHS’s brief overview.

Be sure to check out Complete Literature to find this article in full. This was used with my permission on and reputable blog, dealing mostly with teaching and child development.

Image from Stanley Morales

How to identify students with eating disorders.

When choosing how to research this particular post, I got in contact with Sarah Stevens, an eating disorder counsellor to help explain how education providers may be able to identify an issue in one of their students.

How can education providers recognise students with eating disorders?

Initially, the tutor may notice changes in mood and/or behaviour. Depending on the particular eating disorder the student may begin to withdraw socially, avoid eating in public, with friends, etc. They may make out they have already eaten when really they are avoiding it.

For a student who purges, it might be that the tutor begins to notice they leave the table within minutes of finishing during lunch periods, they may take to chewing gum, and using perfumed products to hide the smell of vomit.

The student may begin to get highly anxious about work. People with anorexia can have a perfectionist streak which often rests its head at stressful times like exams.”

What are the outward signs to look for?

The obvious things a tutor can notice is a change in weight and muscle mass. Although not often discussed, muscle dysmorphia is on the rise with young men falling prey to feeling ‘not good enough’ and therefore pumping up at the gym. When the workouts start to interfere with school work, social life, etc, there may be an issue.

There are so many signs you can look for that Sarah couldn’t possibly discuss them all. These can be behavioral, emotional and physical changes that you’ve picked up on as a teacher/lecturer such as the following.

  • Sudden changes in grades and performance and school
  • Mood changes
  • Evident tiredness
  • Sudden weight changes
  • Increased absenteeism from class.

As an education provider, there are some signs which will be less obvious from your perspective. These include things such as the following.

  • Depression, anxiety and even self-harm. These could also be indicators of other issues.
  • Bullying from other classmates
  • Obsessive talk in regard to food, weight, and shape
  • A sense of low self-esteem.

Unless obviously stated by the student there is no tell-tale way to determine exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, and therefore it’s up to the deduction skills and digression of the teacher to determine the student’s possible mental state.

Please note; These are not definitive. It should also be noted that as an education provider, you are not qualified to diagnose. This can only be done by a mental health professional. Your involvement should be purely a pastoral and supportive role.

How you can help students with eating disorders.

Whether you’re supporting a child with a known eating disorder or encouraging them to get help for the first time, there is no question that it can be a delicate matter. As education providers, there are obvious signs you can identify with and other, less obvious signs which may go unnoticed.

How can education providers help a student?

“Essentially the tutor can simply ask the student if anything is bothering them and if there is anything stressful happening in their lives. It’s important to be reassuring and compassionate and to encourage the student to speak with a trusted adult.

Ideally, the tutor will be sensitive to the pupil, not saying things like “you look fine” as this can trigger the student to act out in ways that are unhelpful to them. The tutor can provide a listening ear, supporting the student to go see a medical professional and ideally model a healthy relationship with their own body and food.

There are obviously certain channels to go through in order to report a potential problem with a student. As mentioned by Sarah above, speaking to the student outright is the first approach. This should be carried out in a professional but compassionate manner, and the education provider should remember to remove all judgments from their mind. Moreover, it’s important to remain calm, so as not to raise alarm in the student.

It’s highly likely that the student may refuse to accept help or even acknowledge the issue. In this case, it can’t be forced, and there is nothing you can do to force someone in to help. Keep an eye on the student for any follow-up, and ensure that they are aware you are there to listen if ever needed.

Create opportunities for confiding.

In some cases, students may find it easier to come to you first. By making the first move they may feel more in control of the situation, removing the aspect of their choices being made for them.

Create safe spaces for them to speak with you. Suggest them stay after class to discuss schoolwork, encourage them to speak with you about any fears or troubles they may be having and maybe start with a simple question.

Avoid an outright discussion about weight and food as this could easily scare the child. Instead, focus on listening to them, and work on building up your mutual trust. You may be the only person who’s actually listening to them and for that, they’ll be very grateful.

When to get pastoral care involved.

If a child is raising concern it’s important that you contact the person in charge of pastoral care within your facility. It may be the case they’re already aware of the issue, or they may enlist your help in regards to ‘keeping an eye’ on the student.

“It can be daunting and scary to deal with a student with an eating disorder.”

It’s important to remember the following.

This is a mental health issue which can come about due to various pressures at home as well as in school. Grief, bullying, low self-esteem, relationship issues, illnesses, and many other reasons can trigger the development of an eating disorder. All the various different types of eating disorders are complex and whilst individuals may have similar behavioural patterns, each individual needs to be considered in their own right.

As an education provider on the front lines, you have the ability to provide help for students byways of a listening ear, or a friendly face. Children and teenagers are often in a place where they may feel reluctant or scared to confide in adults for fear of losing their control, therefore it’s important that you remind them you are here to listen, not dictate.

Remember yourself in all of this; We’re only human and we aren’t built to read minds. Don’t beat yourself up for not noticing a problem sooner. Your mental health is important too.

For more information on how to help someone with an eating disorder, have a look at any of the following articles from the blog.


  1. Eating disorders are common. My daughter hates to eat but is also back and forth with what she eats. One day it’s meat the next day no.

  2. I like the idea of setting an atmosphere for confiding. It’s important for these children to feel comfortable enough to share so they can get help.

  3. Eating disorders are so prevalent in today’s society. If we can catch them sooner then we can help so many and do a better job at that help.

  4. This is interesting! Listening to kids is really helpful and you will understand to help them.

  5. I feel like so many people don’t know the signs of an eating disorder! The info in this post is very helpful.

  6. I think so many people often don’t know what to look for or once they are aware, they’re unsure how to approach this. The info you’ve provided is so useful and I know it’s going to help a lot of people. When I was teaching back in the UK, this was not something that was looked into or had training offered for all school employees. I think that can be a huge oversight that left those students in need of support floundering. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing, it is so important that we pay attention to kids/teens and their stress levels – being a student can be so overwhelming!

  8. I’m surprised to hear that there is no training for something so prevalent in adolescents. Thanks for the thoughtful guidance, it can help so many!

  9. This is a really important topic that I think is getting more and more prevalent with the rise of social media, parents should be aware and look for the signs.

  10. Being a student these days seems to be more challenging in many ways and there are more mental health issues in this age group than most of us may have recognized. I appreciate the focus on eating disorders because that is a common part of it and often hides under the radar.

  11. You are very right….the outward signs speak lots of volumes! The moodiness and paleness on the face always stand out. Thanks for sharing.

  12. This is an INCREDIBLE post lovely, I know it’ll be so helpful to so many people. I’ve never seen anyone talk about eating disorders in students specifically before but I can imagine it’s such a bigger problem than we all realise, especially with the rising pressures of grades and school and University.

  13. This is a very nice and informative post that truly raises awareness about eating disorders. I was once told that eating disorders can really be associated to depression. They said depress people either tend to eat too much or too less. This issue is often being unnoticed and the person who experience it, really requires support from family or friends
    Thank you for sharing

  14. Such an important topic and I’m so glad you are talking about it. I’m so grateful that my tutor was always there for me & put some time aside to speak to me each week. She made such a difference by giving me a safe space. I wish all teachers were like this. But something I do really wish is that there was some kind of awareness in the early years of secondary school, when we finally had a session about mental health, it was far too late.

  15. Depression and stress-related disorders are higher than ever in the student population. It’s good to be drawing attention to this so we can start helping our kids.

  16. Such important points, you’ve really nailed this post. I wish there were more information on eating disorders, and mental health in general, when I was in school. Very nicely done in raising awareness!
    Caz xx

  17. It’s quite the opposite here, especially in NI where we’ve had no government for approaching 3 years now with no intervention from the mainland UK. Suicide is on the rise, and having been in that dark place myself, I can see why. I hope it changes soon, but I’m not holding my breath. Thank you for stopping by and reading.

  18. I certainly think that half a class wasn’t enough to learn about mental health. That’s all we got really. I think we may have touched on anorexia and bulimia, but not much. If there had been more understanding around eating disorders when I was in school then things may have been different for me. But it’s doubtful as nothing can change unless things at home change, and looking back I had no chance.

  19. As always Nyx your info is spot on. How do we plan to improve mental health if we are not investing in it on all levels. Especially informing our teacher of how to inform others ! Great read

  20. Thank you for sharing light on a topic that isn’t discussed enough. It is very informative and has lots of information that everyone should read.

  21. I honestly think that a big reason it wasn’t picked up on that I struggled to eat when at secondary school was because I wasn’t underweight.
    If I had been visibly underweight maybe someone would have queried why I kept fainting all the time or where I was finding the time to have lunch when I was double booking every lunch break with school clubs.

    Then again, they likely would have raised their concerns to my parents at a parents evening (as I found out happened multiple times with suspicions I may have Aspergers) and my parents would have likely brushed it off because they didn’t want to deal with having a mentally ill child.

    I wish that I had had better education about nutrition at secondary school – perhaps in PSHE where we learnt all about drugs and sex and very basic information about anorexia and bulimia. But I think if I had better nutrition education along with better education about puberty and supporting the hormonal changes in my body, maybe that would have helped me.

  22. It certainly is and I hope it changes soon. After a suicide attempt in first year at university, I had to inform my lecturers as I was moving out of halls and was in the hospital for a bit. They were so uncomfortable and it was embarrassing. More needs done to train them to deal with those sorts of issues.

  23. Thank you. I really hope that things have changed in regards to the teaching profession, but I asked my sister recently so maybe not. With the mental health epidemic on the rise, I hope they come to their senses and invest more in mental health in schools.

  24. I feel the same. I think it’s vital that teachers are educated more not just on eating disorders, but mental health in general .

  25. I would love to be able to go into schools and talk about mental health. We didn’t talk about mental health much in school and I think as it becomes more visible in recent years, that children need to be taught about mental health and wellbeing.

  26. I agree. My school never taught us about mental health, and I honestly think it should be mandatory for all kids to learn more about mental health and welling being.

  27. Very important health tips, indeed it is vital to be able to identify these eating disorders early enough so that you can have them seek the right treatment.

  28. In my previous school, I arranged external training courses and one that I thought was essential for all education based staff is Mental health first aid. I honestly believe it could save lives.

    Great Post x

  29. Great post– I wish I had had a teacher in school who could have noticed/helped when i was struggling with my ED.

  30. WOW! No major training on mental health for teachers? That is terrible. I’m so glad you are writing this and spreading the word.

  31. Going to university triggered disordered eating for me. I would eat a single block of dried noodles a day and refused to even put it on a plate, I would eat it straight out of the pan with the disdain I deserved. Not one tutor/lecturer noticed (or if they did, they didn’t reach out). It’s still painful to talk about. Mental health training is desperately needed.

  32. Your sister is right. We do not have enough training on mental illness as teachers. Thank you for this article. It was very insightful.

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