Working With Children When You Have An Eating Disorder
Florence and I are both in treatment together at an inpatient centre for eating disorders. We published our first article together last week - I’ll link it here if you haven’t read it.
In talking further, we thought it would be an interesting idea to write about what it is like to work with children while dealing with an eating disorder. Children, as I’m sure you know, are a very vulnerable population. Easily influenced by peers and the media, it can be delicate to share topics related to mental health with such impressionable people and personalities. Topics like eating disorders need to be navigated in a smart and calculated fashion - being open and honest is good, but we also experienced a fine line between what we share and what we keep to ourselves. Here is a little bit of our background when it comes to eating disorders and our careers.
Meghan knew she wanted to work with kids from a young age. She started lifeguarding at fifteen years old, giving swimming lessons to children as young as two and teaching pre-lifeguard certification classes to swimmers in their early teens. She started her university academic career in Anatomy and Cell Biology, but eventually switched to Child Studies, where the focus was on child development and learning disabilities. After graduation, she worked for a year as a behaviour therapist with children on the autism spectrum at a private ABA clinic in Montreal. She made the switch to a more academic-focused environment the following year, where she was hired as the education coordinator at a learning centre.
Florence began working with children as a camp monitor. At seventeen, she underwent dance training, and eventually ended up teaching dance for eight years. Florence also worked as a counsellor at a youth centre, and in doing so, she realized that she wanted to work with adolescents. Florence is passionate about child and adolescent development and completed her studies in nursing. She now specializes in child psychiatry.
Meghan had a hard time dealing with an eating disorder while working in a field where children were involved. Over the years, she has been quite open about her struggles with anorexia, and that openness carried through to conversations with her bosses and supervisors. However, when she had to leave her job to enter intensive inpatient treatment, she didn’t tell any of her students why she was leaving. In fact, she never shared with them anything at all about her health.
For Meghan, it’s not that she was ashamed. But talking about mental health can be difficult with children and adolescents. In her opinion, it has to be done very carefully, with research and knowledge. Meghan didn’t feel comfortable having her students know about her eating disorder. Although she was open with her students about some aspects of her personal life, the mental health aspect was kept confidential. Explaining mental illness is tough; it’s more of an abstract concept, in comparison to physical illness. Most of us get colds or the flu or stomach aches or headaches… but anxiety? Depression? Eating disorders? Those illnesses are, (thankfully), a little less common. But they are also harder to explain, especially for students who haven’t yet developed in terms of the way they think, rationalize, and understand.
For Florence, one of the main reasons she asked for medical leave from work was because she felt like an imposter. She would counsel youth on how to take care of themselves, but she wasn’t able to care for herself. When she is doing well, though, she is able to take what she has learned from her treatments and apply it to the work she does with her adolescents. As a nurse, Florence wasn’t at ease with her patients knowing she had an eating disorder. She wouldn’t talk about things with them. Florence wasn’t ashamed to talk with her co-workers and colleagues about her struggles, though. She really believes that the more you talk about a topic like mental health, the less “taboo” it becomes.
One of Meghan’s worst moments at her job was when one of her students made a comment about her thin physical appearance. “Your legs are so tiny!” said the little girl. “Look at them! They are so small!”. It was probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her career. Meghan tried to cover up the fact that she had lost a significant amount of weight, but it was not always possible. It was never Meghan’s intention to have her students become aware of her struggles. She never wanted them to get influenced.
Florence’s dance students never really made comments about her eating disorder. But, because she did have to leave the dance session early to enter treatment, Florence explained herself to her adult students on the closed Facebook group that she had created. With the adolescents and children, however, she did not talk about her eating disorder. Teens and children are too vulnerable and impressionable, and it was hard to talk about such a serious issue with a younger population.
Meghan and Florence’s dreams for the future are to change the mental health landscape, particularly for the youth. They would like mental health to become stigma-free, but they also wish for girls and boys to become confident with themselves and their bodies, and never deal with body image issues or eating disorders. Eating disorders are such terrible diseases and they affect more than just the individual - friends and families struggle too, especially when a loved one is unwell. Given that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, Meghan and Florence hope they can continue to advance research and create a society where all sizes are welcomed and celebrated. Part of their goal in starting their blogs is to continue to raise awareness, to educate, and to help others feel not so alone. Eventually, they would like to be able to show others that recovery is possible (and worth it!). But they both know that to achieve this goal, they need to be well, which is why they are pushing through the difficulties of treatment.