College-Age Disease Calls for Attention

As a college student a few decades ago, I had never heard of eating disorders. I did know that chart-topping singer Karen Carpenter had died of a heart attack at about 30 years old, and that her death had something to do with her being skinny. I had no idea, however, that an eating disorder could exist. I myself occasionally engaged in behaviors like fasting, vomiting, or working out excessively, so as to be skinny and attractive. But I just saw myself as a healthy, normal college student, doing what all college students did to feel good about themselves. Like everyone else, I also was studying, dating, hanging out with friends, handling a budget for the first time, and otherwise managing and enjoying my daily life.

Today, more college students know about eating disorders than when I was in school. Magazines expose celebrities who suffer from eating disorders, TV shows and feature films depict stories of characters suffering from the disease, and numerous colleges offer education about and screenings for the illness. Still, there need to be more awareness, education, prevention, and treatment centers on college campuses. Of the 165 colleges and universities recently surveyed by the National Association of Eating Disorders (NEDA), only 22 percent offered screenings and referrals.

Says Lynn Grefe, NEDA president and CEO:

Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening, and the steady increase of prevalence on our campuses is alarming. Colleges providing the resources and support necessary for students affected by eating disorders should be applauded. However, we have also learned that more can and should be done on many campuses, to serve this population.

During college, most students are living away from home for the first time. Experiencing their first taste of independence, without yet understanding healthy interdependence, students can feel overwhelmed by the new stresses in their lives. If they do not get help, they may be at risk for developing an eating disorder; anorexia is the deadliest of mental disorders, with fatality rates exceeding those of any other.

Athletes may be particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. Sports like gymnastics, wrestling, and running emphasize low body weight as a crucial component to competing successfully. And so, in addition to facing the general stresses of their new lives at school, college athletes may be under pressure to keep their bodies at peak performance weigh, perhaps driving them into eating behaviors that over time can become full-blown eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. While every college and university in the NEDA surveystated a concern for athletes, only 2.5 percent of those schools offer year-round prevention and education for this target demographic.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of college-age men and women with eating disorders. According to the NEDA study, about 15 percent of all college students now have an eating disorder, with twice as many women affected as men. I suspect that these young college students think that they are normal, healthy, and invincible young adults, as I believed about myself at 19.

Unfortunately, all of us may be under the same illusion and therefore inadvertently contributing to the problem. We often compliment slender youth — telling them that they look good and praising them for avoiding the Freshman 15 (typical weight gain during the first year of college). Because our social beauty aesthetic values slenderness and touts it as healthy, we may not recognize the early warning signs of eating disorders. By praising the outward manifestations of the illness, we may unknowingly encourage it.

It is my hope that colleges across the country will increase the eating disorder resources and support offered not only to college students, but also to family members and local communities. Because while eating disorders are classified as a mental illness, they are also a social disease, in my opinion. Eating disorders start young, and early detection and intervention is critical in preventing long-term health complications and fatality. To empower our youth in developing healthy eating habits, we ourselves need to understand, internalize, and project what it means to have a healthy body image. Then, together, we can turn the tide of eating disorders in America.