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What to do if you’re a young person with an eating problem

We have lived through almost a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to many young people struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. Local and national restrictions can lead to loss of contact and support from friends and family members, lack of structure and routine and anxiety about the future or feeling life is out of your control.

Lots of people have different eating habits or go through phases of wanting to eat more or less healthily. But if you are constantly worrying and controlling what or how much you eat and it’s impacting on you every day, this is a sign that you need to speak to someone.

Eating problems are common and all kinds of things can cause eating problems or disorders. You might develop an eating problem when you feel anxious or low in mood because things don’t feel right in other parts of your life. Images we see on social media can add to the feeling that we have to look a certain way or be a certain weight.

It’s okay not to feel okay and you can get through this. What’s important for you to know is that there are lots of ways of dealing with these thoughts and feelings and that there is help for you.

Symptoms of eating problems

Here are some types of symptoms that you might be experiencing:

  • Eating only certain types of things or restricting the amount of food you eat
  • Being pre-occupied about food and wanting more control such as making your own meals
  • Being unhappy about your weight or appearance
  • Being afraid of gaining weight
  • Binge eating
  • Making yourself sick
  • Exercising excessively
  • No longer enjoying eating socially or being self-conscious about eating in front of others
  • Dramatic weight loss, weight gain or failing to grow
  • Problems with concentration, dizziness, feeling tired or cold

If any of the symptoms are affecting your everyday life, please don’t suffer in silence. It’s important to talk to someone about how you’re feeling.

Being able to control how much or what you eat might give you a feeling you are in control, but it can lead to more serious issues. Eating problems if untreated can cause long term physical and mental health problems. Please reach out for help as early advice and support can stop eating problems getting worse.

Who can I ask for help?

We know it’s hard, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. You may feel that you don’t want to burden other people or you might worry about what others think. But the truth is people care about you and they will want to help you.

First, think about who would you feel most comfortable talking to? Many of us prefer talking to family or friends, or you may want to talk to professionals (staff working at your school, college or university, your GP, health professional or social worker), support groups or helplines.

When you speak to them, explain how you feel. They can help by spending time with you, talking things through or giving you help. They can also help you get professional support in a way you feel comfortable with.

Where can I get help?

You can talk to your GP by giving the practice a ring – and you can ask to speak to a GP who you know or trust as well. Or you can speak to your hospital/community doctor or nurse if you have one who looks after you and you know them.

There are 24/7 all ages crisis lines available in England if you are having a mental health crisis. You can find your local helpline at nhs.uk/urgentmentalhealth.

As well as the above, there are also other places where help and advice is there for you:

  • BEAT has designated pages to help young people who may be struggling with an eating problem including an eating disorder and provid advice. They also provide one-to-one web chat and a HelpFinder to see what eating disorder support is available in your area.
  • Public Health England’s Better Health – Every Mind Matters website provides support including tips on how to improve your mental wellbeing.
  • YoungMinds Crisis Messenger provides free crisis support if you are having a crisis – it’s every day of the week, at any time day or night. You just need to text YM to 85258. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
  • Samaritans are an organisation you can ring if at any time of the day or night. They will help you and listen to how you’re feeling. You can ring them on 116 123. You can also email them: jo@samartians.org
  • Student Minds is here for students with Student Space. Explore a range of trusted information, services and tools to help you with the challenges of student life. You can access dedicated support services for by phone or text and get help finding what support is available at your place of study.
  • Childline will help you if you’re under 19 and you can confidentially call, email, or chat online about any problem big or small. Their freephone 24-hour helpline is 0800 1111. You can sign up for a childline account on the website to be able to message a counsellor anytime without using your email address. Or you can chat 1:1 with an online advisor
  • SHOUT provides free, confidential, 24/7 text message support in the UK for anyone who is struggling to cope. Text 85258 for SHOUT the UK’s first 24/7 crisis text service on, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime.

Other types of support

If you have autism, the National Autistic Society have helpful advice on their website on how to deal with this uncertain time with the COVID-19.

Life can be scary and it’s okay not to feel okay. Remember that you matter. You don’t have to suffer and there are people who want to help you. You can get through this and feel okay again.

Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan

Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan is the Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health for NHS England.

Prathiba is a Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry working in a large mental health and community trust (Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust). Lead consultant since 2005, she became Clinical Director in 2015 and continues to work clinically within a community child and adolescent mental health service in South Manchester. She graduated from Medicine (University of Manchester) before completing her MD, inspiring her interest in the needs of children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system.

Over the last 12 years she has published in journals and books and contributed to national reports and guidance for the Youth Justice Board and Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

She has contributed to the development of the Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool across the youth justice secure estate for the Department of Health and NHS England and continues to be research active as an Honorary Research Fellow and Lecturer for the Offender Health Research Network (University of Manchester).

As a clinical advisor (Greater Manchester and East Cheshire Strategic Clinical Networks), she has also promoted the development of regional clinical guidance across Greater Manchester.