Eating disorders: Why prevention and early intervention are crucial

01 February 2018

Approximately 1.6 million people are diagnosed with an eating disorder in the UK and recent reearch shows that people aged between 14-25 are most likely to be affected. For Eating Disorders Week, Hannah Lewis and Sophie Ulhaq from our co-production team look at why early intervention is key to helping young people get the help they need. 

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses which affect an individual’s relationship with food. Eating disorders can be classified into a number of categories, with the most diagnosed being anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Common features can include cycles of a restrictive food intake, bingeing or compensatory purging behaviours, alongside a disturbed body image.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness so it is crucial that they are detected and treated early. Yet for too long, services have been failing to offer support before an individual has encountered severe physical complications where the outcome can be fatal, and an individual waits an average of three years before accessing treatment, hence why the theme of this year’s EDAW is ‘Why Wait?’

Having to wait three years for eating disorder treatment is inefficient, and so the recent focus on the development of Community Eating Disorder Services for young people as well as innovative programs such as  ‘FREED’ at The Maudsley hospital in South London means that early identification and intervention are rightly being prioritised. 

We need to reframe the way we think about eating disorders. If we treat eating disorders and disordered eating as a negative coping mechanism to regulate emotional pain, instead of ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘vanity’, then we will get closer to understanding the mental distress that can develop from having a troubled relationship with food 

- Hannah Lewis, Step-Up Project Officer

With regards to eating disorders and body image, the ‘Step Up: Transitions’ Project is trying to go one step further than early intervention and deliver a prevention focused workshop. By acknowledging that body dissatisfaction is a “critical component” of the development of eating disorders, our workshops aim to raise awareness of this element of an individual’s mental health, in order to harness positive behaviours which can be protective from the development of an eating disorder. By placing young people with lived experience of an eating disorder or body image troubles at the centre of the creation of these workshops, we are essentially delivering workshops which we believe would have had an impact in preventing our own disordered eating behaviours from on-setting.

Eating disorders are known to be notoriously complicated, and can be hidden for years until it gets to a critical point wherein a person is so deeply entrenched into the behaviours that to suddenly try to find what lies underneath can be terrifying and unappealing. Early intervention is so important in trying to understand what the eating disorder is saying, what role it is fulfilling and dealing with the issue sooner rather than later can greatly improve a person’s quality of life. 

- Sophie Ulhaq, Co-production administrator

We can help those vulnerable to developing an eating disorder to seek help before it goes any further, or to act as a preventative step altogether. The longer a person waits to seek help the harder it is to reach recovery and the more isolating the disorder becomes. Even if a person does not look “anorexic” or “sick enough” does not mean there is not an immense amount of psychological pain that is being felt.

If you would like more information about eating disorders, please visit our advice and information pages.