Mental Health and Obesity: It’s everybody’s role

Matt Kempen
Marketing Manager for ACAMH

Posted on

By Melissa Little. Melissa is a Paediatric Dietitian specialising in childhood weight management. She runs a social enterprise called Foodtalk.

Currently 1 in every 5 reception age children is above a healthy weight and this increases to 1 in 3 in year 6 (National Child Measurement Programme – England, 2015-16). Whilst the data on obesity in adolescents is varied, we know that two thirds of adults are above a healthy weight which puts obesity levels in adolescents somewhere around fifty percent.

This means that half the children in a secondary school class will be above a healthy weight. These numbers are higher in children from minority ethnic backgrounds and those with a lower socioeconomic status (Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England, 2017).

Along with the risks to physical health that obesity can lead to, being above a healthy weight also has strong links to poor mental health, most commonly depression. Research is unclear whether the depression causes obesity, or obesity causes depression, or perhaps a little of both. Either way the connection is strong, especially in fifteen to seventeen year olds and increasing into adulthood. Children who are above a healthy weight are more likely to be less physically active, have lower self esteem and have less healthy diets, all factors that can lead to depression. They are also more likely to be the victim of weight based teasing and bullying which can have a profound effect on mental health. There is less research into how depression may cause obesity however factors may include medication, lack of physical activity and reduced family dynamics (Quek, Y.-H., Tam, W. W. S., Zhang, M. W. B., and Ho, R. C. M. (2017) Exploring the association between childhood and adolescent obesity and depression: a meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews, 18: 742–754.).

It is imperative that young people seek the support they need to help control their weight and any co-morbidities, be it mental or physical. It is the role of all those working with young people, including teachers, youth workers and supporting staff, to help raise the issue of weight and signpost them to local services where they can seek support.

However, weight being such a sensitive topic, it is not an easy issue to raise and practitioners must ensure they do not do more harm than good by raising it in a manner that is not empathetic to the needs of the child. By using health or fitness based language, rather than language around weight, some of the stigma around discussing obesity can be reduced. Additionally, looking for “door openers” and responding to the needs and wants of the child mean the conversation will run more smoothly than if it is led by the practitioner. Although raising the issue of weight is everyone’s role, staff should aim to get specialist training on how to do it in a sensitive and effective manner.

For more information on Raising the Issue of Weight training for school staff please contact info@foodtalk.org.uk

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