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Eating disorders

What are eating disorders?

We all have a relationship with food and eating, and sometimes it’s easier to be healthier than others. This can also affect the way our bodies look and feel, and the way we feel about ourselves.

If someone isn’t eating a regular balanced diet over a long period of time, it can start to become a problem, which may be diagnosed as an eating disorder. Eating disorders are mental health problems because they are normally the result of difficult thoughts and feelings, which lead to harmful behaviours.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, whatever their age, gender or cultural background, although it is more common in young women from age 12.

A couple of the main types of eating disorders are:  

  • Anorexia – This is where someone keeps their weight low by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising, and usually challenge the idea that they should gain weight.

  • Bulimia – This involves a cycle of eating large quantities of food (called ‘bingeing’), and then vomiting or using other means, to prevent gaining weight. People with bulimia may be of normal weight

Why do young people experience eating disorders?

Most eating problems are a response to really difficult feelings and experiences, rather than a concentrated desire to get thinner or change body shape. Eating disorders are complex and there is no one single reason why someone develops an eating disorder.

It may be that they can be linked to difficult life experiences (eg. abuse, bullying, family break up) or stresses at school. There are some characteristics that might mean someone is more likely to develop an eating disorder, such as having low self-esteem or being very self-critical. Pressure from society and the media to look a certain way, make also have an influence.

How will I recognise that a young person has an eating disorder?

It is common for young people to be unhappy with how they look, and they may talk about dieting or trying to lose weight.  However, if the young person loses perspective and are not eating a regular balanced diet over a long period of time, it can start to become a problem.

As volunteers, you are not expected to diagnose young people with an eating disorder or any mental health condition. However, it is useful to be aware of signs and symptoms which may indicate a problem. 

It is important to be observant whilst on camps and nights away, to ensure young people’s safety and wellbeing.

How should I respond to a young person who may have an eating disorder?

It’s important to ensure that Scouting provides a supportive environment, and to know how to respond if you have concerns. There are small things you can do which can make a big difference.

If a young person discloses that they have an eating disorder, the most important thing you can do is stay calm and non-judgemental. Giving a calm and non-judgmental response can help the young person feel able to speak more openly and access support services. You can let them know that there are lots of forms of support available. You should speak to the young person’s parent/carer, unless it is believed that this contact could put the child at risk. In this case, or if you are unsure what to do, you can contact the Safeguarding team at Headquarters for advice.

Remember, if you are concerned about a young person’s safety or wellbeing, follow the procedures on reporting a safeguarding concern, as on the Yellow Card.

You may need to make adaptations to activities in Scouting, for young people who are underweight. Consider this when risk assessing things like expeditions or adventurous activities, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the young person. Also, check that the food provided at events or nights away, and arrangements for meal times, are acceptable and suitable for the young person. It may be appropriate to discuss adaptations with the young person and/or the parent or carer. This may include adaptations such as allowing the young person more time or privacy to eat their meals.

How can I make sure Scouting is a supportive environment?

Scouting can be a really positive influence in the lives of young people and can provide a supportive environment for young people to share their thoughts and feelings. Scouting can be a positive influence on a young person’s emotional wellbeing and there are small things you can do which can make a big difference. Some good practice is listed below:

What support is there for young people who have an eating disorder?

If a referral needs to be made to a specialist service (eg. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service – CAMHS), the referral is completed by The Scout Association Safeguarding Team. The first stage is that Safeguarding is likely to seek advice from Children’s Services and may be asked by them to make a referral. Volunteers are not expected to make a referral on behalf of a young person or their family.

What you can do is make the young person or parent/carer, as appropriate, aware of support that is available, and you can contact the Safeguarding team at Headquarters for advice. It may be useful to have information about relevant support organisations available at your meeting place.

There are support organisations (see list below) and GPs can help young people access the support they need. For example, there are specialist eating disorder clinics that GPs can refer to or that people can access privately.

Remember, just being involved in a supportive environment within Scouting and the positive relationships made there, can make a big difference. Just being supportive and understanding can make a big difference.

Guidance created in partnership with Mind.
Further information and support organisations

The Scout Association Safeguarding Team
Phone: 020 8433 7164

Information and support for anyone affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, weight and shape.
Helpline (over 18s):  0345 634 1414
Youthline (under 25s):  0345 634 7650

National Centre for Eating Disorders
Support for anyone affected by eating disorders.

Information about mental health, including information on eating problems

The Scout Association has developed an introductory e-learning pathway with MindEd, to provide further information and guidance on young people's mental health. This contains an e-learning module entitled 'Eating Problems'.  For more information, click here.

Yellow Card

Our code of practice (also known as the Yellow card) sets out guidance for all adults in Scouts.

Read the Yellow Card

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