The anorexia clinic for girls as young as SIX

Posted on 10 September 2011


By Beth Hale
Last updated at 9:59 AM on 9th September 2011

A haunting dispatch from inside the hospital that saves children from starving themselves to death… before they’ve even reached their teens

Slumped semi-conscious on the sofa, Megan Archer summoned up what little strength she had left and fixed the paramedic attempting to hand her a vital glucose tablet with a determined gaze. ‘How many calories does it have in it?’ she said.

Looking at the fragile frame of their 13-year-old daughter — appearing years younger thanks to a cruel illness — Jane and Phil Archer were hit by a wave of utter despair. Those few plaintive words summed up how, in a few short months, anorexia had transformed their healthy daughter into a painfully thin shadow of her former self.

Fussy about food: Children who always refuse to eat could be showing signs of a deeper problem (posed by model)

‘It was a terrifying moment,’ remembers Jane, 47. ‘When she collapsed at home, complaining of chest pains, it hammered home how desperately we needed help. She was slipping in and out of consciousness in front of us, that’s when I dialled 999.

‘But when the paramedic arrived and tried to give her just half a glucose tablet and suddenly she was alert enough to be asking him how many calories were in it, I knew that despite doing all we could as parents, we couldn’t make her feed herself, the illness was more powerful than we were.’

Megan, a delightful teenager with big brown eyes and hair dyed a fashionable shade of red, interrupts to give her own account of her collapse but is overcome with tears. Determined to explain her emotional response, she says: ‘You begin to feel very selfish about what you are putting your family through.’

Extraordinary maturity from a girl only just entering adolescence. Yet it is a brutal irony that fighting anorexia gives its victims a maturity beyond their years.

It is shocking to think that this slip of a girl was hospitalised for five months after her collapse. Yet Megan’s story is far from unique. Last month statistics revealed more than 2,000 children have received treatment for eating disorders in the past three years, and more disturbingly, 98 of those children were between just five and seven.

I’ve come to Rhodes Farm in North London, which opened in 1991, becoming the first unit dedicated to the treatment of eating disorders in children, to get an insight into this growing problem.

‘Running became a compulsion, if anyone tried to stop me going I would get so angry I would just run out of the house and go anyway’

The farm, which is in fact a sprawling former family home, is registered to care for 32 patients aged eight to 18, but staff confess that on one occasion they treated a six-year-old girl.

No hint of anything remotely clinical is on display here; it’s all colourful duvets, teddy bears on pillows, a living room dominated by a giant TV screen. The heart-rate monitor in the six-bed room that houses the poorliest children is lying discreetly in a corner.

The patients, while some look frighteningly thin, are smiling and joking as they sit playing card games round a large table in the garden. But however pleasant the setting, those who run the clinic know the situation is reaching crisis point. A few years ago the average age of admission here was 15; today it is 13 and descending.

Megan’s mother Jane expresses bewilderment that her daughter should develop this illness at such a young age. ‘Young people should be full of life, free from worries. It was quite a realisation that people could develop anorexia at any age.’

Megan explains: ‘I never really liked the way I looked from a very young age. When I joined my secondary school most of my friends were quite petite, but I was quite chunky.’

Her words are a poignant insight; it’s clear from the expression on the faces of her parents that Megan wasn’t in the least overweight.

Nonetheless, this is how Megan felt when she decided to attend a local gym. ‘Running became a compulsion,’ says Megan. ‘If anyone tried to stop me going I would get so angry I would just run out of the house and go anyway. It was a passion, I loved it. I felt proud of myself.’

Dying to be thin: Many young girls feel under pressure to be slim in order to be popular and attractive (posed by model)

With the benefit of hindsight, Phil and Jane wonder whether they could have spotted the signs earlier, but at the time they were proud that their daughter had found something she loved and was good at.

But as Megan exercised more and, unbeknown to her parents, ate less, her weight began to plummet. Worried she wasn’t getting adequate nutrition to support her exercise — her parents consulted a nutritionist. But Megan just became worse, as she made excuses to avoid eating with the family, and cutting food into minuscule portions, her weight continued to drop and her family felt powerless to help.

They attempted to make Megan eat, sat with her until she ate, took her to the GP and even bought nutritional shakes, but she refused to touch them.

‘It’s you against the anorexia,’ adds her father, Phil, a supermarket manager. By the time Megan was referred to Rhodes Farm, the situation had reached crisis point. Just a day after referral Megan collapsed at home in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire; she lay down and when she got up her body simply couldn’t cope.

That afternoon in November 2010, she was assessed by staff at Rhodes Farm, two days later she was admitted to the clinic.

During her stay, she shared a room with 17-year-old Alice Leng. Alice, another charming and vivacious teenager, was admitted to the clinic suffering from anorexia at 16. Alice’s issues with body image started at the tender age of just ten. Neither of the girls want to divulge just how much they weighed when they were admitted, as they know only too well the competitive nature of fellow sufferers who may be reading this piece, but, as with Megan, Alice required urgent treatment to get her back to a healthy weight.

‘I could see what was happening to my daughter but it was like holding sand in your hand, you just can’t stop it slipping through your fingers. You feel helpless’

Alice, now a young ambassador for eating disorders charity B-eat, gives a worrying insight into the mind of a child anorexic.

‘If you look at people with eating disorders they are perfectionists, hard-working, generally get good grades,’ she says. ‘The signs are there. I was always fussy about food; I was paranoid about different foods touching each other, I didn’t like sauces. On top of that I’ve always been quite self-conscious.’

By the time she was 16, Alice had suffered some bullying at school —nothing too specific just typical teenage teasing — and was worried about gaining weight due to a thyroid condition. Soon, her determination to drop weight became an obsession.

Alice’s mum Sheila watched over her daughter as she made a desperate attempt to get her to eat. ‘I could see what was happening. But for me it was like holding sand in your hand, you just can’t stop it slipping through your fingers. You feel helpless.’

Sheila eventually pleaded with her local mental health service to help her daughter, and it worked. Alice was admitted to Rhodes Farm last November. She describes herself at that time as ‘broken inside.’

Alice, like Megan, was lucky. Her NHS trust paid for a place at Rhodes Farm; no small feat since it cost £499 a day per child.

Risking their future: Eating disorders can leave girls infertile, like Chantelle Houghton, who recently admitted she may not be able to have children because of dieting in her youth

It’s not a place where children are force-fed, in fact, staff at the clinic tell me they have had to resort to tube-feeding a child just once in the last two years. Instead through peer support, the children are encouraged to eat each meal together.

Target weight gain is 1kg — or, roughly, 2.2lb a week. Multiply that by the 20 weeks Megan and Alice spent here — around three stone — and it’s easy to see how perilously ill both girls were.

Martin Davies, eating disorders lead clinician for Care UK, which runs the clinic, says: ‘When I started in the field back in 1986 you would rarely hear about someone aged ten, now I’m not surprised by some of the younger people we’ve treated here.’

What does he think has sparked such an alarming trend? With a sigh he says: ‘I guess for me it’s about the world we live in, a society where the pressures of daily living are increasing; pressure on kids to mature earlier, where the family unit is more complicated, where family meals aren’t always together …’

And society’s obsession with body image? ‘I don’t think it’s a trigger,’ he says. ‘Anorexia isn’t the slimmer’s disease, it’s the biggest killer of all mental health illnesses. To suggest it’s about people wanting to look like someone they see in the media trivialises it, but certainly I think that those images don’t help.’

As he talks, a girl who could be eight or nine walks past. ‘She’s 12, but she doesn’t look it does she?’ he says. ‘Anorexia arrests all aspects of development, not just growth, it can impact on fertility, it can cause early signs of osteoporosis and young kids don’t need to lose the same volume of weight as an older person before they are in danger.’

Before I leave Megan bounces over to me and whispers: ‘Please can you say how much I appreciate all the help my parents have given me.’

But the simple truth is, just seeing their daughters smiling and healthy again is all the thanks any of these parents want.