As more teenagers go to extreme measures to get thin, parents should be extra vigilant
Published 12/06/2015 | 02:30
Eating disorders are rising at an alarming rate in young people, with both girls and increasing numbers of boys going to extreme measures to become thin.
The number of teenagers who have been admitted to hospital has doubled in the last three years in the UK.
In Ireland, there was a 30pc increase in calls to the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland helpline - called Bodywhys - last year.
A large portion of blame falls on the shoulders of the Internet and social media.
You only have to Google 'pro-ana' - the term for pro-anorexia sites - to see the scale of the problem.
When I searched for it on Google, 30,900,000 results came up.
One of the first websites I opened, chillingly told me to: "Make a list of 'bad' foods. Periodically, cross one off the list and pledge to never, ever eat it again. Eventually, there will be none left!"
If one click of a mouse can come up with over 30 million websites telling you how to lose masses of weight, with some urging you to become anorexic, it's no wonder young people are getting into trouble and starving themselves.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) in the UK believes that the images and apps available online are placing huge pressure on young people.
The RCP said it had seen an "unprecedented" rise in the number of eating disorder sufferers recently.
Spokeswoman Dr Carolyn Nahman said: "We're getting increasingly concerned about the pressure of social media."
She's right. With one click of a button, vulnerable and impressionable young people are able to access millions of images of 'perfect-looking' people, which places them under a lot of pressure.
Looking at images of airbrushed models and celebrities frolicking on a beach in teeny tiny bikinis with thighs the size of tooth-picks, can cause teenagers to develop low self-esteem.
And it's not just teenagers.
Most women staring at photos of slim, toned stunners will begin to feel bad about their own body shape.
It's the same for boys and men looking at pumped-up, six-pack wielding movie stars.
It certainly doesn't enhance their sense of self-worth either.
It is important, therefore, to urge young people to stop comparing themselves with these perfect images - most of which have been doctored and Photoshopped to look perfect.
Childline has said that it is now receiving increasing numbers of calls relating to children with eating disorders too.
The factors it cited as contributing to the increase it had experienced, included the growth of celebrity culture and the rise of anorexia websites.
But it also noted the increasing pressure around body image placed on children and teenagers through social media.
Sue Minto, head of Childline UK, said: "The 24/7 nature of social media places huge pressures on our children and young people which in turn can lead to significant emotional issues.
"And society is increasingly bombarded with celebrities and airbrushed images which give an impossible view of what 'beautiful' is."
It is certainly true that being 'thin' is one of the most desired traits in the western world. Being fat, chubby or overweight is now seen as 'ugly' and 'undesirable'.
This yearning to be skinny is driving young people to incredible and life-threatening lengths to lose weight. Apart from just not eating, increasing numbers of people are undergoing gastric band surgery, popping slimming pills, and having liposuction.
But even more worrying are the crazy new weight-loss fads. They include urine injections which trick your body into believing you're pregnant, thereby boosting your metabolism and helping you burn calories faster.
Or the cotton ball diet.
Videos on YouTube have young girls showing you just how to do the diet, which involves dipping cotton balls into orange juice, lemonade or a smoothie before swallowing them whole.
The idea is that the cotton balls will make you feel full and satisfied, so that you eat less and consequently lose weight.
Dr Terence Larkin, Consultant Psychiatrist at St John of God Hospital, says that he and colleagues across the sector have never seen so many people present with such an extreme severity of the illness, particularly in relation to anorexia nervosa.
He said: "People are presenting when they have become extremely emaciated, to the point that they don't need psychological treatment, what they need is actually medical intervention."
Bodywhys and all those organisations involved in helping and treating people with eating disorders say the earlier people seek help, the better the prognosis for a full recovery.
"Recovery is possible," stresses Harriet Parsons, services co-ordinator of Bodywhys.
"It is possible to get out of an eating disorder . . . it is not something a person has to live with forever . . . it is possible to reach a point where food and eating has a place in your life in the same way that it has for everybody else."
The Department of Health and Children estimates that 200,000 Irish people are currently affected by eating disorders.
An estimated 400 new cases emerge each year, representing 80 deaths annually.
We can only hope, as parents, that we will recognise the symptoms early enough to help our children and save them before they need to be hospitalised - and by then it may be too late.