Highgate School pupil Amber Van Dam found it difficult to watch classmate Sophia Parvizi-Wayne battle against anorexia nervosa. But she helped her best friend on the road to recovery and now the 16-year-olds are fronting a campaign to promote mental health awareness within schools.
Having finalised their proposals at a brainstorming session at the Zest café at the JW3 community centre in Finchley Road, the girls opted to start with a three-page handwritten letter to the Highgate head, urging him to implement a mental health awareness programme. But they are pushing for schools across the country to get on board.
Amber, a former Reform Synagogue Youth member, has supported Sophia over the past two years in her battle against anorexia — the potentially life-threatening eating disorder that is affecting an increasing number of young people. A keen cross-country runner, Sophia’s strenuous exercise regime had triggered the condition and she lost three stone in a year.
And Amber feels she would have been better placed to help her friend with the proper knowledge. As Sophia changed from a gregarious, outgoing girl to a withdrawn teen obsessing over food, “at one point, I didn’t want to be around her. It was such a bad stage,” Amber recalls over a coffee in Golders Green. “A lot of people around us just couldn’t deal with it. One day we went to a house-party. I saw how thin she was and just burst out crying. I said: ‘I can’t see you like this.’ We both went home early that night.”
She started to monitor her friend’s behaviour, from informing Sophia’s mum about what she had eaten, to spending evenings after school with Sophia. “She stopped training and had a lot of free time so I was with her every day. It was odd when she started to recover, because she no longer needed me so much.”
Now the girls, who both hope to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, are looking to share their story. “We decided we had to go out and do something,” says Amber, who lives in West Hampstead. She believes that mental health education — also covering social anxiety, depression and self-harm — has taken a back seat at schools to issues such as cyber-bullying, sexual abuse and drugs.
They have launched an e-petition to the Department for Education to make mental health awareness compulsory on the national curriculum at secondary schools and hope the campaign will alert students, teachers and parents to early signs of mental illness. The “Stop it before it starts” petition has already attracted almost 1,700 signatories. And for the first time, Highgate School will be holding a mental health awareness week.
“Support has been unbelievable,” Amber says. “We wanted to make a difference. We want to stop other people suffering. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. With anorexia, you notice the weight drop, but it’s harder [to spot] other mental issues. Sophia had a lucky escape — she’s come out stronger for this.”
“We both have,” adds Sophia, who is grateful for the support of friends, family, psychologists and nutritional experts.
“We don’t usually go to teachers or family if there’s a problem — we go to friends,” Amber points out. “Friends need to learn how to deal with it. People think anorexia is just about not eating — that’s not true. Sophia was still eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. It affects every aspect of life.”
The latest study by King’s College London and the UCL Institute of Child Health reveals that the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders has risen by 15 per cent since 2000. Adolescent girls are the most susceptible but diagnosis among boys has also increased. It requires around five years of treatment to recover and 50 per cent of sufferers continue to have eating problems despite treatment.
Jewish schools including JFS, Hasmonean, Yavneh and Liverpool King David have enlisted the help of the Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill (Jami), where head of services Tanya Harris reports that the response has been positive. She feels sixth-form students are particularly at risk of developing a mental illness because “the stress of going to university can act as a trigger.
“We can’t treat anorexia but we can provide support. We have definitely noticed an increase in the number of men and women who have come forward with all sorts of mental health issues.”
Following an approach from UJIA — the umbrella organisation for Israel tour groups across the youth movement spectrum — Jami workers now hold courses for tour group madrichim. “There’s still stigma around mental illness in the community, just like in any community,” Ms Harris notes. “It’s not just ours.”
She would like the government to do more. “I’m not sure that kids know where to go if they are at risk of mental illness. Kids are just not accessing provision.”