The Teens Online Support Group is run by Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland. Most of the young people using it are aged between 16 to 18 years and almost all are female.
Bodywhys found there was an 84% increase in teens using the group, compared to 2013. Almost 200 accessed it last year and one in five were new attenders.
“Having a safe space to talk and hear from others in a similar situation is both vital and valued,” said Bodywhys services manager, Harriet Parsons.
As Bodywhys published its 2014 report, Ms Parsons said eating disorders tended to develop between the ages of 18 and 24.
“When you think of the life changes that happen during those years, you can understand why,” she said.
Bodywhys found that the highest proportion of helpline calls received last year, at 27%, were from people aged between 25 and 35.
“It shows that eating disorders can affect anyone at any age and that more older people are seeking help,” said Ms Parsons.
“Contrary to the myth, eating disorders are not a ‘teenage phase’, or a ‘lifes- tyle choice’. They are serious and complex mental health problems.”
The report shows that 58% of those who emailed Bodywhys and 50% who called the helpline were not receiving any form of treatment.
Last year, 70% of those calling the helpline were first-time callers while 30% of the calls were about people who had an eating disorder for more than 10 years.
“An eating disorder is often an incredibly isolating experience. Not having support can intensify negative feelings and distress,” said Ms Parsons.
“Our concern is that there is a huge cohort of people with an an eating disorder that keep it hidden and have not spoken about it with anybody.”
Ms Parsons said there was no “one size fits all” when it came to treatment for an eating disorder. Some people could recover on their own but most realised at some point that they need professional help.
“An eating disorder is a way of coping and a person is not going to let go unless they feel they are being supported in a different way.”
Ms Parsons said people with an eating disorder relied on it as a way of coping with their lives, which was why they found it so difficult and terrifying to think about letting it go.
“We want people to know that recovery is possible and that people can contact us in several different ways,” she said. “It is not about food and weight, it is about how a person is feeling about themselves and everyone’s experience is different.”
The report shows that most callers contacted Bodywhys for a “listening ear”, rather than for basic information.
Calls were evenly divided between callers who have an eating disorder (47%) and calls from family and friends of those with an eating disorder (46%). Most of the calls (90%) were made by women.
Bodywhys chief executive, Jacinta Hastings, said there was a stigma attached to eating disorders. However, their latest figures suggested that talking things through could help a person to feel less hesitant about opening up to their GP or family member.
Support and a listening ear can be accessed via email@example.com and the helpline number is 1890 200 44.