Eating disorders plague college campuses, new forms of mental illness surface
An epidemic more common than the flu has millions of victims in colleges across the nation.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD, approximately 20 percent of all college students suffer from an eating disorder of some kind, a number that currently stands at more than 4 million.
Jenna Temkin, a counselor who specializes in eating disorders in the Counseling Center, said the beginning of college is a time when students are particularly vulnerable to a variety of emotions that may lead to eating disorders.
“This is a really important time in their lives,” Temkin said. “This is the time that they are transitioning from being at home. There’s the stress of school, and so oftentimes this is a point that really may lead to mental health problems that we may see in college students.”
Temkin said in this critical period, eating disorders are prone to rise, worsen or resurface from prior experiences.
One of the challenges during this period is the freshman 15, a phenomenon where students new to the college environment gain a significant amount of weight due to the sudden change in lifestyle.
Experts argue over whether the phenomenon can actually be substantiated considering most students only gain 2.5-3.5 pounds during their first year, according to a study done by researchers at Ohio State University in 2011.
Despite all of this, Temkin said that the freshman 15 is a significant concern for many of the students who seek help from her, also saying that an unhealthy obsession with the phenomenon could be a cause for eating disorders.
“Individuals will come in with such fear that they are going to get this weight gain, this freshman 15, which in this developmental period of time could absolutely cause eating disorder behaviors to arise,” Temkin said.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common eating disorders on college campuses. Anorexia is deliberately depriving the body of food, while bulimia is the practice of food binging and purging.
According to ANAD, 25 percent of college-aged women suffer from bulimia in an effort to lose or maintain their weight. Stephanie Setliff, the medical director for the Eating Recovery Center of Dallas, said bulimia is one of the most pervasive eating disorders on college campuses.
“(Eating disorders) are rampant in college campuses,” Setliff said. “I think college campuses really present their own challenges, and we always see a lot of bulimia nervosa in those campuses.”
Temkin said the stigma around seeking psychiatric help still exists, making it difficult to gauge the actual number of students living with debilitating disorders.
“There is a lot of secrecy around eating disorders,” Temkin said. “There may be even denial. Also, there is a lot of guilt or shame or self-blame that comes with eating disorders, which can sometimes make it hard to take that next step, which is admitting that there is a problem.”
People of all ages and both genders suffer from eating disorders, Setliff said. She sees patients typically between the ages of 9 and 70, but she has worked with children as young as 6 years old.
Eating disorder data is less concentrated for men, Setliff said.
“There is an epidemic (of eating disorders) in boys and men, but it is still primarily a female disease, with being female and dieting probably being the two biggest factors anyone would have at being at risk for eating disorders,” Setliff said.
Setliff estimates that she sees approximately two to three males for every 10 female patients.
“It used to be very rare for me to get a boy in treatment, but now I always have at least one boy in treatment,” she said.Temkin said positive physical change could be made by eating healthier meals and by increasing exercise. Even the most well-intended eating behaviors can lead to eating disorders when carried to the extreme, she said.
“Dieting can be a normal thing, but 35 percent of dieters progress to pathological dieting and 20-25 percent progress to full-blown eating disorders,” she said. “The intention is not to develop an eating disorder, but oftentimes it can develop inadvertently.”
A new term called “orthorexia” describes people who are overly obsessed with eating organic and healthy foods. Seemingly innocuous, these behaviors resemble the unhealthy behaviors of people with eating disorders.
Other eating disorders surfacing on campus are binge eating and drunkorexia.
Drunkorexia, though not a clinically defined eating disorder, has become the term used to describe the practice of depriving the body of food in exchange for excess amounts of alcohol. The logic is that weight gain from calories in the alcohol will be balanced by avoiding calories in the form of food.
“It makes sense that people who are vulnerable to these kinds of problems would drink and not eat to lose weight,” Setliff said.
However, drunkorexia does not balance out weight gain but exacerbates it along with causing other complications.
Though eating disorders may begin because of food or weight issues, they usually transcend those problems.
“(Eating disorders) can serve as a way for individuals to distance or distract themselves from overwhelming emotions. It can serve as a way for individuals to feel success or accomplishment. These behaviors are serving a much more underlying function to these individuals,” Temkin said.
Eating disorders are the mental health illnesses with the highest mortality rate, according to ANAD.
The official site of anorexia nervosa and related eating disorders states that about 80 percent of people with eating disorders who seek treatment either recover completely or make significant progress.
However, according to ANAD, only 18 percent of people suffering from eating disorders seek help. Paying attention to symptoms early on and taking advantage of the recovery services available can significantly increase the rate of survival for people with these diseases.