Recognizing the Eating Disorders Plaguing Campuses

As we observe National Eating Disorders Week (through March 2), it’s significant to point out when eating disorders are most likely to become full-blown: Not surprisingly, it’s during the years 18 to 21, when young women and men are off to college—a time of major transition after leaving the comforts of home, when social pressures mount and affect the way students view themselves. Studies have shown that 10- to 20-percent of college women and 4- to 10-percent of college men must battle the disorder.

But how do colleges deal with the suffering of those young people? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) conducted a survey of resources available for students with eating disorders and found that services were lacking. The most widely offered service to students was simply pamphlets. Of the campuses surveyed, 80 to 85 percent made these informational handouts available daily to students.

Eating disorder screenings are offered at only 22 percent of the universities surveyed, many just once or twice a year. Only 33 campuses said they offered screenings on an as-needed daily basis.

Less than half of the campuses surveyed offer group therapy sessions for those dealing with eating disorders, even though every responding campus’s mental health coordinator said such therapy is important. Seventy-two percent of the responding colleges offered activities for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week—but that’s just one week of the year.

Colleges that do offer activities try to put a positive spin on students’ self images. As Colorado State University, for example, sticky notes and T-Shirts are passed out, on which students can write down the things they love about themselves. In an interview with The Rocky Mountain Collegian, a student-run campus news organization, the CSU coordinator for mental health, Janelle Patrias, said about the event:

I think it is more of an awareness-raising event, but for people who see themselves and who know they are struggling, it is pretty powerful, it has a way of jolting them and thinking maybe I really need to take this seriously and think about myself.

The University of Alabama is hosting a similar event during the week, at which students write down things they love about themselves on a white board, then take pictures and post them on social media sites.

John Carroll University in University Heights, OH., partnered with the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders to host the event “Body Beautiful” on Monday night. A panel of doctors and psychologists spoke about body image and eating disorders, the documentary Killing Us Softly 4 (about advertising images of women) was screened, and students wrote letters to their future children, advising them on how to love themselves for who they are (which were bound together in a scrapbook).

Olivia Armand, a student on the planning committee for Body Beautiful, was the first John Carroll University student to declare that she would combine her psychology major with a newly offered concentration in eating disorders. She said of those in attendance at the events,

Even if people in the audience weren’t experiencing an eating disorder personally, they know somebody who is.

Armand first recognized that she was struggling with a disorder when her mother brought her to the doctor for another supposed reason. The doctor explained to her that if she didn’t gain back the excessive amount that she had lost, she might lose the ability to give birth later in life. As Olivia  explained about the start of her recovery,

To know the numbers on the scale are going to go up, it was really terrifying for me

This year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week theme, “I Had No Idea,” is something Armand can identify with. Fortunately, she is now back at a healthy weight and is using her own experiences to educate others.

College campuses can play a huge role in preventing and treating eating disorders. A big round of applause to all the schools that participated in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, but resources and activities for students should be implemented nationwide on a daily basis to help the thousands suffering from these disorders.

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Lindsey O'Brien is currently studying journalism at Ohio University and interning at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.