National Eating Disorders Association

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Spikeghetti
When school counselors hurt more than they help

Recently, my friend told me some very disturbing news. I just got back from a month long vacation and found out that she hadn't been to school for a week. (Unfortunately, during the trip my family and I were in a very remote location and hadn't been able to contact anyone due to the bad wifi.) I thought she was taking a break from school, which has long been a source of stress and anxiety, but there is a much darker story behind that.

My friend, let's call her Stephanie, suffers from an anxiety based eating disorder, where she ends up restricting due to the fact that she's so anxious she literally canNOT eat and will sometimes throw up after eating because she feels so sick. Stephanie has suffered from low self-esteem and poor body image for a long time too, and I'm certain this does not help her ED, most likely contributes to it.

Stephanie had been told that any conversations with the school counselor (we are in 9th grade, not at the same school but we live near each other) would remain private, and she finally worked up enough courage to tell them that that she has been hearing voices. Instead of calmly talking through the situation (ie--finding out if the voices are harmless, if it's just sound, etc.) they called an ambulance and forced her into a hospital in the middle of school, also informing other people in the office along the way. The school also called child care services and her parents must now cut their visit to Malaysia short, where they were with family. After ALL of the fuss, the doctors at the hospital simply diagnosed her with "auditory hallucinations." Now, everyone at school knows that she has an mental illness, and she's very worried on how people are going to treat her after this.

Also, Stephanie had told them that if they call her parents and force them to return, she will not be coming back to school, and so she hasn't ever since the incident.

I know that this is NOT a good way to handle the situation, but I can understand and sympathize with her fears. She is scared of what will happen now, and feels betrayed and angry at the adults she trusted; unfortunately, I can attest the the fact that this school is not very skilled when handling mental disorders.

My sisters developed anxiety due to the inordinate amounts of pressure BOTH students and teachers put on them to due well. I'm very proud of them, they get extraordinarily high marks (high nineties to 100s consistently), but the students and teachers would constantly make comments and even talk about them behind their backs. As a result, my sisters and I eventually transferred out. My siblings (older) also have developed anorexia nervosa, and when one of my sisters talked to the guidance counselor (who knew about their ED/anxiety) about transferring out, they said "You're just running away from your problems, you're going to have to make friends no matter where you go." This just underlined that even the supposedly "qualified" people didn't even understand the real issue, or were unwilling to acknowledge it and lose a promising student. Both ways are terrible. That same counselor had earlier told my sister that she didn't "understand why you're so stressed out" because "Sweetie, your workload isn't that heavy." Another member of the guidance office also leaked information about my sisters leaving to another student in the school--they had no right to do that after promising confidentiality. As a result, gossip spread like wildfire, making the already bad school environment an even more undesirable place.

This school has been a main source of Stephanie's stress/anxiety, and I know she feels backed into a corner right now. She doesn't want to return, but the school suggested that she should transfer out into a different high school--an even worse option, something she said she doesn't want to do. Stephanie is very shy and had trouble making friends at a high school that most of the people we knew from elementary went to as well. I understand that in these situations the school is required to report it and seek medical attention, but there was no need for the excessive sharing of information and making such a big deal. Especially when the doctors at the hospital could only tell her what she already knew.

Fortunately, she IS seeking non-based school help, and I was told she's going to see a psychologist tomorrow. I'm praying for her recovery and mental strength, and I'm definitely going to be there for her to eat with, talk with, rant with, pray with--or WHATEVER she needs. It's hard for her to open up to people, which is why I think the school making a big deal about her ED was such a harsh blow. Is there anything else I can do? I really want to write a letter to the school or something to bring attention to the maltreatment of people, but I know I CANNOT act on my emotions. However, this is something that I know must be addressed, mainly for the future students who will be in these people's incapable hands.

Any suggestions or advice for the current situation?

BobJ48
Professionalism and confidentiality.

Spike,

Oh brother, this sounds like a real mess alright. Here in the US the confidentiality rules are pretty specific - Underage people can be reported if they are "a danger to themselves" (i.e. suicidal thoughts ) , or if there is abuse going on at home. There may be some other circumstances too, but even so, nothing justifies letting this information get out to those who don't have a specific need to know. The fact that now everyone at school knows about her situation is the sort of information-sharing that would be inexcusable here, and perhaps even grounds for ethical charges.

And yes, counsellors and teachers are not always as sensitive as they might be about situations like this. Often they are more concerned with telling the person what they believe that that person should be thinking, rather than trying to relate to what the person is actually thinking themselves. This really doesn't help younger people have confidence that anyone really "gets it" about what they are going through, and can cause them to be even more reluctant to try and reach out for help later.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it's possible that the school is actually glad to be rid of your friend. In that they may view anyone who may have "problems" as a negative situation that they may find themselves obligated to deal with in the future, so it's best that such students just go off somewhere else. This is not the case with all schools, as I think some schools actually are committed to being there in a supportive way for their students, but at the same time, I think there are other schools which don't look at things that way at all. Schools that tend to look at what's best for the school first, and where what's best for the students is not always at the top of their list.

As to how you might respond, you may want to see if you can look up the ethical guidelines for counsellors in your country, and if the folks at school don't seem to be following them, then your note to them might want to point that out. While they do indeed harm people who have put themselves in their care when they violate these rules, they also put themselves at risk for legal actions, which is s thing I suspect they would be more concerned about in the end, than any harm which may have come to your friend.

And just to say, your friend is really fortunate to have a supportive friend like yourself. Maybe we are not counsellors or trained professionals, but simply the fact that people have a caring friend they can trust, can really make a whole lot of difference.

Bob J.

Spikeghetti
Thank you

Thanks for the supportive reply. I think looking up the confidentiality/legal aspect is definitely a good idea to dealing with this situation. Unfortunately, my friend was forced to return to school by her parents, and it's been pretty stressful for her, so any ideas on helping is really appreciated. Thank you again for the ideas and help--and for reading through the really long post!

BobJ48
Bac at School

Spike,

I'm not sure how it is where you are, but it's possible that your friend may get more sympathy and understanding from her friends than she expects. I'm "older" and it's been my experience that younger people are way more understanding and sympathetic to people's issues than they ever were in the past. It's possible that she'll get teased and shamed, but it's also possible that people will come to her defense should that happen. Who the good and caring people are, and who are the jerks should become apparent should her classmates start paying attention to her problems.

Do you know if her meeting with the psychologist felt OK to her ? Hopefully it did, and that she was able to be honest with them, as they could turn out to be a good support for her….if they make a good connection and they feel trustworthy to her. Fingers crossed for that.

People with "issues" can feel shamed, and worry that they are somehow defective or unworthy, when compared to their peers. It's a common reaction for people with EDs. And not true at all, as I'm sure you have seen with your friend. In fact, often people with EDs are some of the nicest people you'd hope to meet. It's often hard to convince them that they are good people at heart, so if you know of concrete good things that she does, or of kindly attitudes towards others she takes, it won't hurt to point those specific things out to her. Because she may be having a hard time trusting in those parts of herself, you know ?

But be specific, and point out specific examples, so she won't think you "are just saying that" you know ?

….

Not sure if any of this helped, so stay in touch, OK ?

Bob J.

rowingchick
Unprofessional School Counselors

Draft a brief letter to the school board. No more than one page. Make sure you know exactly what your goals are before you write it, and state your "Ask" clearly and concisely. Do you want the counselor(s) fired or do they need additional training?
Have others review it before you send it. If you can gather additional signatures, that would be good. Don't rush it. Make sure the letter is very clear and simple and only states the facts.
Good luck!