July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Molding Young Minds

I recently took to social media to ask friends/readers what they’d like to know more about in the realm of eating disorders and mental health. A friend responded, requesting more information related to working with adolescent males and females in a school setting.

Oftentimes parents, families, friends and partners reach out to me with an interest in learning more about preventative measures and about how to act as a strong support who is sensitive to issues related to mental health. While these supporters are incredibly important, there also is an entire population that can be just as influential: educators. It is for this reason that I’ve developed and presented a program to train teachers in the context of eating disorders. Teachers and coaches all interact on a day-to-day basis with students and have the opportunity to positively/negatively influence those struggling.

Though not all individuals who struggle with mental health issues are school-aged, a high number of mental health issues and disorders begin in adolescence and are seen among students ranging from junior high school to college-aged. I therefore find my friend’s request relevant and potentially impactful as many of my readers are involved in the education field. And for those who aren’t, so many of you are parents and community members who interact with a number of children. While I will gear this article primarily to educators—and focus primarily on eating disorders—please adopt these themes as you see fit.

  1. Know what you’re looking for. To delve into the basic symptoms of depression, anxiety, self-injury, addiction and/or eating disorders could take up multiple pages of this newspaper and therefore I will recommend instead that you learn about these symptoms—a simple Google search will provide a wealth of information. Learn about the symptoms but also know about the causes. Learn about the methods of practice that work best depending on the issue. There are many approaches that people take to be helpful, but instead perpetuate the issue. For instance, commenting on weight in a praising or even concerned manner feeds the eating disorder rather than conveying care, as preoccupation with weight is a major component of the eating disorder and this will only add to feelings of anxiety.
  2. Do not comment on appearance. Complimenting appearance is a commonplace social interaction. Whether this relates to new clothes, weight etc. my recommendation is to stay away from this. Comment instead on efforts, skills and the experience of being with this student. It is not taboo to tell a student you like her new haircut or comment on an item of clothing—this does happen. However, there is a way to be mindful of the degree to which this takes place. We don’t want students to remember the instances of teachers commenting on appearance. Rather, we want students to learn from teachers as role models who value the soul of the individual. A simple change in compliments can subliminally—or consciously—shift what the students believe that you, as the educator, value.
  3. Be mindful of food/exercise attitudes. Just as it is recommended for mothers not to discuss desired weight loss or dieting in front of her children, so too this extends to teachers. I recall teachers discussing their diets while I ate in the lunchroom. They spoke negatively of their bodies in a way that was honest, in the way two friends might speak. What they hadn’t realized was that their adolescent students could be impacted by these statements. By hearing adults discuss weight loss/exercise in a maladaptive manner, students form beliefs around their own bodies and their need to “work on” their bodies, or take on a diet. This is not to say that hearing my teachers contributed to my eating disorder. But the reality is that students look up to their teachers and if you can have a positive impact by speaking mindfully (or not at all) about your body while within earshot of students, why not practice this.
  4. Know the system. If you’re concerned about a student or other adolescent, know to whom you should turn. It is the first recommendation to talk to a school guidance counselor. It is important that the school has a list of clinicians/medical providers who are familiar with eating disorders/mental health who may act as advisors. If you’re concerned or overhear conversation that may allude to symptoms of mental illness, or notice obsessive tendencies or even have another student come forward sharing concerns, it is important to talk with the appropriate staff member and they will deem what would be the next best step.

I believe that by learning more about mental health, all different players involved in a given individual’s life may act as a support, as someone to whom the person can turn. You have an opportunity to learn more and serve as a positive influence. Please, take the time to explore.

By Temimah Zucker, LMSW

 For questions or comments related to resources or teacher training, please email the author at [email protected].

 

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