The importance of school nurses in preventing eating disorders in children 

The importance of school nurses in preventing eating disorders in children
© shutterstock/Maya Kruchankova

New research from Kingston University has highlighted the importance of school nurses in identifying eating disorders in children and young people.

The research comes from the third-year Kingston University student Emmie Hopkinson, who used her clinical research and existing studies to provide new recommendations, that she hopes can inform the delivery of care for eating disorders in children. 

Hopkinson’s research centred around the most common types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The paper, ‘Why eating disorders in children and young people are increasing: implications for practice’, has been published in the journal Nursing Children & Young People.  

Signs of eating disorders in children may include a combination of the following behaviours: 

  • Preoccupation with checking calorie content in food; 
  • Eating a restricted amount of food; 
  • Binge eating; 
  • Negative self-image about their weight and/or appearance;
  • Repeatedly weighing themselves; and
  • Feeling guilty after eating. 

Eating disorders in children have risen drastically in recent years

According to data from NHS England, there has been a 185% increase in eating disorders in children and young people between 2016 and 2022. Hopkinson wanted to explore some of the potential reasons behind this sharp increase. 

“There is an urgent need to address the lack of early intervention, prevention and accessibility to help young people living with eating disorders and those who may potentially develop eating disorders,” said Hopkinson. 

According to Hopkinson, one of these potential reasons behind the increase is the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of children and young people. The number of routine and urgent referrals to children and adolescent mental health services doubled in 2021 during the pandemic. 

Education on eating disorders is limited

Hopkinson’s research emphasised the importance of school nurses in preventing eating disorders in children and providing early interventions. Hopkinson also found that education on eating disorders in schools was limited and should be considered a potential factor behind the case spike. 

She also noted how the school nurse had an important role in supporting prevention and early intervention for eating disorders, with limited education on these conditions in schools found to be a possible contributing factor.  

“The school nurse, who is already skilled in identifying these issues, can help by advocating for regular sessions on mental health to be implemented into the curriculum. They can educate teachers on some of the misconceptions around eating disorders and how best to approach and support a child and young person who may be going through diagnosis or treatment,” explained Hopkinson. 

The negative impact of social media was also highlighted by Hopkinson as a key factor. In her research, she outlined changes that could be made to decrease the risk of children developing eating disorders. 

“Implementing positive changes such as greater restrictions on the age limit to join social media and preventing the use of photo manipulation and filters could make these platforms safer for children and young people,” said Hopkinson. 

The paper also found several barriers to care that may prevent young people and children from accessing treatment for eating disorders. Hopkinson cited a lack of funding and regional disparities in access to care. She found that children from low socioeconomic and/or ethnic minority backgrounds were less likely to be identified for treatment. 

“This is a very important health topic that requires attention. Emmie has demonstrated exemplary leadership as a student nurse by increasing public knowledge and understanding of these serious, life-threatening conditions to a wide range of audiences,” concluded Julia Petty, senior lecturer in children’s nursing at the University of Hertfordshire, who is Hopkinson’s academic mentor.


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