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Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

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4.1 Early intervention

Early intervention in the case of an eating disorder makes a substantial difference in reducing the ongoing distress and improving outcomes. In Figure 6, you’ll see figures from a survey conducted by the UK charity BeatED in 2017, which shows that it took on average 69 weeks before recognising a young person had an eating disorder and it took a further 39 weeks before the young person sought medical help.

An image of an arrow going from left to right, titled TOTAL 130 weeks. The majority of the arrow is is dark purple, and labelled 69 weeks. There is another large, lighter purple section, labelled 39 weeks. Then there are three, much thinner sections, blue, labelled 7, orange, labelled 8 and red, labelled 7.
Figure 6: The average time (weeks) spent waiting by under 19s for eating disorder treatment.

Reasons for the initial delays vary. The next activity helps you to consider some of these.

Activity 5: Reasons for a delay in seeking help for an eating disorder

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes


Perceived stigma of mental health problems


Family tensions making communication difficult


Not realising the problem is serious


Not knowing what to say or how to say it


The young person is good at hiding their problem


Lack of information about eating disorders


Denial of the problem


Most people are already well informed and know how to deal with an eating disorder

The correct answers are a, b, c, d, e, f and g.


Did you realise that they could all apply except for ‘Most people are already well informed and know how to deal with an eating disorder ‘?

Eating disorders can create tensions and guilt in families and parents may find it difficult to help effectively (Eklund and Salzmann-Erikson, 2016). An interesting study of South Asians living in the UK found that they:

  • worried about the stigma associated with mental health
  • thought eating disorders could be easily fixed
  • worried about privacy and confidentiality within their communities
  • warned that these issues were not confined to this ethnic minority.

(Wales et al., 2017).

There is also some evidence that 16-25-year-old males do not recognise an eating disorder in themselves because they consider it a female problem (Räisänen and Hunt, 2014) and that this is a stereotype entrenched in the media (Maclean et al., 2015).

Early identification is important in all mental health problems and it can sometimes prevent the development of unhealthy behaviours such as self-harm, which you will consider next.