Guidance created in partnership with Mind.
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's more common in young women from the age 12.
Two of the main types of eating disorders are Anorexia and Bulimia:
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, such as abuse, bullying, family break up, stresses at school and so on.
There're 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's 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's useful to be aware of signs and symptoms which may indicate a problem.
It's important to be observant while on camps and nights away to ensure young people’s safety and wellbeing.
As well as difficult emotions or feelings, signs and symptoms of an eating disorder may include:
- Hiding weight loss/gain
- Being obsessed with weight
- Taking dieting or efforts to lose weight too far
- Being very anxious around food
- Physical symptoms, such as excessive weight loss or poor appetite
- Unusual eating habits
- Excessive exercise
- Very distorted body image - they might genuinely view and believe themselves as fat, even if they're thin
- Using laxatives/diet pills
How should I respond to a young person who may have an eating disorder?
It’s important to ensure that Scouts provides a supportive environment, and to know how to respond if you've concerns. There're small things you can do which can make a big difference.
If you've concerns about a young person’s eating habits:
- Try not to make an issue about it, but don’t turn a blind eye.
- Help the young person recognise any problems or patterns in their behaviour, in a non-judgemental way.
- Talk to the young person gently and calmly, and listen to what they have to say.
- Help the young person identify support available if appropriate.
- It may be appropriate to consider having a sensitive chat with their parents or carers.
- Ensure Scouts is providing a supportive environment for that young person, so ensuring that others don't tease, comment, bully or pick on the young person.
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're 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 young person 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're concerned about a young person’s safety or wellbeing, follow the procedures on reporting a safeguarding concern, as on the Yellow Card.
What adaptions may I need to make?
You may need to make adaptations to activities in Scouts for young people who are underweight.
Consider this when risk assessing things, such as expeditions or adventurous activities, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the young person.
Check that the food provided at events, during cooking activities or on nights away, as well as 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 to eat or privacy to eat their meals.
How can I make sure Scouts is a supportive environment?
Scouts 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.
Scouts 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 to:
- Be prepared to listen to young people voice their concerns about diet, body weight and so on.
- Avoid making any personal comments about a young person’s physical appearance, as this may prove very offensive or harmful.
- Be sensitive to young people who appear to be underweight or overweight - appreciate how they may feel about their size and other aspects of their life that may be affected by their size.
- Be prepared to listen to young people voicing their worries about weight concerns.
- Support healthy and positive discussions around body image and food.
- Remember, as a volunteer in Scouts, you're an important role model, so it's important to consider your own comments around eating or appearance, and demonstrate a healthy relationship to food at all times on Scout events.
- As a volunteer in Scouts, you're also a potential source of information and advice, so it’s useful to be aware of support available.
What support is there for young people who have an eating disorder?
If a referral needs to be made to a specialist service (such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service – CAMHS), the referral is completed by Scout HQ 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 the people they live with.
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.
The young person could seek support through their GP, a counsellor, or by contacting a Mental Health Organisation. For example, there are specialist eating disorder clinics that GPs can refer to or that people can access privately.
A young person can be directed to useful Mental Health Organisations and can access support in several ways through these agencies.
Information and support can be accessed online, but it’s important to be aware that there'll also be misleading or harmful content online too.
Remember, just being involved in a supportive environment within Scouts and the positive relationships made there, can make a big difference. Just being supportive and understanding can make a big difference.
Mental Health Organisations
A range of Mental Health Organisations, who can provide support for both young people and adults.Find support
Information and support for anyone affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, weight and shape.
You can contact them on:
Help for England
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Help for Scotland
Helpline: 0808 801 0432
Help for Wales
Helpline: 0808 801 0433
Help for Northern Ireland
Helpline: 0808 801 0434
National Centre for Eating DisordersVisit the National Centre for Eating Disorders website
Mind's guidance on eating disorders and eating problemsVisit the Mind website
Our code of practice (also known as the Yellow card) sets out guidance for all adults in Scouts.Find out more about the Yellow Card
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