Back at secondary school - over a decade ago - I can't recall eating disorders ever being spoken about. There were no lessons or assemblies on the issue, nor any resources available. Eating disorders was an invisible issue or one that schools were afraid to discuss or ignorant to.
Despite having an eating disorder I'd never heard of bulimia, let alone knew it was a mental illness. Most days I would run out of lessons or avoid lessons completely to escape the torment of bullies. I'd hide in the boys toilets and lock myself in a cubicle as it was the only place where I couldn't be found - it became my sanctuary, where I would binge eat on the contents of my lunchbox. This repetitive cycle of behaviours led to be destructive to my health and education. My self esteem and confidence was non-existent and I had no idea who I was in terms of my identity. Life had become about bulimia and it was far from a life any teen (or adult) should have to go through.
Did the teachers ever suspect bulimia? No. Did my friend's pick up on it? No. Did my family ever notice the signs? Probably not. I was oblivious to it myself. Believe it or not, I came to realise my condition by reading an agony aunt column in one of my mothers's magazines. The letter was from a mother who had written in saying how she couldn't cope with her kids following a recent split from the father. After putting the kids to bed, she'd binge and purge in the night and couldn't stop. The response from the agony aunt told her that she had a serious condition called bulimia. She went onto list all the health implications if left untreated including stomach rupture and even cardiac arrest. While my circumstances were different, I related with the behaviours. For a 15-year-old this was scary reading and I churn slightly now, thinking how I had only learned about this illness simply by chance.
Looking back to my school days now it makes me angry and frustrated that eating disorders was never on 'radar.' Considering the rise in the number of children and young people showing signs or being diagnosed with an eating disorder, it's surprising how still understanding and awareness of eating disorders is sparse as far as the National Curriculum is concerned. The focus on obesity and healthy school meals continues to be prominent on the health agenda but what about eating disorders, too?
However this could all be set to change following a campaign by Debbie Roche, Founder of No To Eating Disorders (NoTED UK) in Plymouth. Her local council has issued new guidance to help spot young people with eating disorders and support families coping with the condition. The guidance recommends schools have informed discussions about eating disorders as part of a planned programme of work in Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education. It goes on to say these discussions should be supported with input from health professionals.
Debbie said: "I am delighted that Plymouth City Council have recognised the devastating effects eating disorders have on children and welcome this policy as a valuable addition to the already placed safeguarding kit in schools. It can only serve to preserve the mental health and wellbeing of our young people."
A survey of 800 schools in 2011 in the UK found that only 40 schools had a specific eating disorder policy. They findings shown that more schools had policies on mobile phones than eating disorders.
Debbie wants to expand the initiative elsewhere so children and young people can be safe from eating disorders. She has started a petition on Change.org to Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) calling on the UK government to make eating disorder policies part of the safeguarding process. Ultimately, the petition aims to make eating disorders policy mandatory in all schools nation-wide.
I strongly urge you to sign the petition today and share on Twitter and Facebook. 18 years of my life were taken to an eating disorder - no child or young person should have to experience this for so long, so unnecessarily. Given the rise of fatalities to eating disorders, I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.
If changes are to be made for the better, then school is the starting place to end eating disorders.
Follow Sam Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Sam_Thomas86