I’ve read this information from NSPCC with a shudder. What are we doing to our children and young people for this to be happening at such unprecedented levels? Knowing people who have eating disorders which developed during late childhood, the ongoing effects are debilitating. For young girls, periods stop or may not start, and some adults, even now, cannot tackle solid food, so damaged is their digestive system that rectal prolapse can occur. The heart is also often weakened.Anorexia nervosa is one of a few mental health diagnoses that affects every organ system.
Fashion trends about how we look and what we eat therefore have devastating long term effects, and I’ve kept the description mild. Yet it seems body image concerns and mental health difficulties are fuelling a rise in the number of young people contacting Childline about eating disorders, new NSPCC figures reveal today. Girls are particularly vulnerable. Thank goodness free help is at hand from Childline.
Childline, the service provided by the NSPCC, carried out 5,934 counselling sessions about eating disorders and eating problems – the equivalent to 16 a day – with children in 2017/18, up 22 per cent since 2016/17.
Almost nine in every ten counselling sessions were with girls, including 148 counselling sessions with girls aged 10-11. Nearly one in six counselling sessions about eating problems mentioned anorexia, while one in ten mentioned bulimia, and almost a third mentioned negative or distorted body image.
One in four counselling sessions were about avoiding certain foods or restricting food intake, raising fears that these children could go on to develop anorexia or bulimia if they did not receive early help and support.
In addition, thousands of children contacting Childline about other mental health issues including suicidal feelings and self-harm also talked about eating disorders or eating problems, bringing the total number of counselling sessions where eating disorders or eating problems were mentioned in 2017/18 to 11,752.
Hope Virgo from Bristol developed an eating disorder after being groomed and abused by a 17-year-old boy when she was 12. Now 28, she says services like Childline are vital to help children and young people get the support they need.
“In 2007 when I was 17 I’d been battling anorexia for four years and was finally admitted to a mental health ward,” she says.
“I ended up living in hospital for a year. I was doing really well with recovering from anorexia, but unfortunately had a relapse after my grandma died recently. She’d had dementia and it was a difficult time. I guess it’s to do with lack of control and relapsing was a way to try and regain some control. I held a lot of guilt, too. I felt like I hadn’t done enough for her. But I self-referred myself for help and got back on track, which I’m really proud of.”
Hope is now a full-time mental health champion, visiting schools and companies to talk about her experiences in order to help others.
She added: “When I developed an eating disorder I didn’t realise that I could contact Childline to talk about what I was going through. I’d really encourage other young people to pick up the phone and talk through their worries with a Childline counsellor and get the help and support they need to overcome their eating problem.”
The NSPCC recently warned that the children’s mental health system is under real pressure due to increased demand, and that this is jeopardising the wellbeing of thousands of children.
Its Are You There? campaign is calling on Government to invest some of the £300 million it has committed for children’s mental health services towards early support services such as Childline.
Regional Head of Service for the NSPCC in the South West Sharon Copsey says:
“Young people tell us that they feel under pressure to look a certain way and live a certain life, and it’s worrying that we are seeing so many children contact us about eating disorders as a result, in some cases when they are still at primary school.
“It’s crucial that all those struggling with such debilitating eating problems are given all the help they need to make a full recovery so that they can go on to enjoy their childhood and teenage years to the full.”
“The starting point on that journey is to open up and talk to someone who can listen without judgement, which is why Childline is such a crucial service for these thousands of children.”
Dame Esther Rantzen, Childline Founder and President added:
“Eating disorders are dangerous, and can be lethal. Families are left watching helplessly as their children’s lives are put at risk, and it is crucial that these young people receive effective help.
“And we must ask ourselves the reason for this dangerous increase? Perhaps it is because an obsession with body shape has been created, forcing young people to try to be as skinny as the unnaturally photoshopped images in the media. The fashion and beauty industries must also be aware of the vulnerable young people who aspire to what they see on social media.
“Childline is there for these young people, and we offer support which we hope will enable them to recover and go on to live healthy lives. But at the moment we can only answer three out of four young people who turn to us for help, so we need funds so that we can expand our service to meet the demand.
“In addition, the help we provide must be supplemented by mental health professionals, and we know how difficult it is for young people and families to access the counselling when they desperately need it.”
Children and young people can contact Childline for free, confidential support and advice, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or atwww.childline.org.uk