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Where eating gets complicated

Stress of college results in increasing percentage of students struggling with eating disorders

At UW-Madison, 19.7 percent of students screened positive for an eating disorder. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Walking into a dining hall at UW-Madison, new students experience a flood of sensations—the sizzle of grilling burgers, the heavy scent of baking pizza—and, perhaps for the first time, the responsibility of choosing what they eat. Where french fries are sold next to a salad bar, the decision of how to fuel oneself during this early act of independence can be overwhelming for students that, added on to the stress of starting college, could spiral into consistent unhealthy patterns.

A Healthy Minds study launched by University Health Services just over one year ago reported that 19.7 percent of UW-Madison students screened positive on SCOFF assessments, meaning they answered two or more questions affirmatively and could be diagnosed with an eating disorder. This falls only slightly short of the national average of 20.6 percent.

And before the SCOFF results were published, the National Eating Disorder Association launched the Eating Disorders on the College Campus study in 2013 at 165 schools nationwide, including UW-Madison. Results showed eating disorders are becoming increasingly prevalent among campus populations. This study was a response to data collected at the University of California-Santa Barbara, which found at one unnamed college total eating disorders increased from 23 to 32 percent among females and from 7.9 to 25 percent among males over a 13-year span. NEDA also noted the organization had received an increased number of requests from universities for information regarding eating disorders.

Both UHS and NEDA said increased stress on college students that accompanies leaving home for the first time and making choices about their diets can put individuals at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, as well as societal pressure to maintain a “small” body frame.

NEDA Director of Programs Lauren Smolar said messages warning students about weight-gain in college, like the rumor of the “freshman fifteen,” may also lead students to develop concerns about eating.

“There’s a lot of awareness and concern over the obesity epidemic and that’s brought attention to healthy foods and a different variety of foods available on college campuses that weren’t available before,” Smolar said. “That is really confusing messaging for someone who is at risk or may be struggling with an eating disorder … There is this middle ground of having the resources available for somebody who needs help from maybe a professional dietitian and also maybe not drawing too much attention to food consumption.”

Some UW-Madison students feel the university is lacking in support and raising awareness without spreading these confusing messages.

UHS offers a support group focused on eating disorders called the Eating Concerns Recovery and Support Group. Students commit to the group by registering before each semester and meet at the same time each week. If this does not work with students’ schedules there are other support groups in which their eating concerns can be voiced.

“Eating disorders often lead to secrecy, like nobody wants to talk about it or share about it,” Lawson said. “Most people who are experiencing an eating disorder have never had that conversation with someone else. By providing a group space that's safe and confidential students can come and share their stories and feel like they’re hearing their stories and others as well.”

UW-Madison junior Hannah Glasrud said she found the groups to be hard to get into, as they fill up quickly, and that a group that meets at the same time each week and requires advanced commitment may not accommodate for how “fluctuating” eating disorders are.

This past academic term she was involved in planting the seed of a student organization called Proud2Bme, a collegiate initiative started by NEDA. The group never came to fruition, but Glasrud, along with former UW-Madison student Carter Kofman who also worked to implement the initiative, said a group like this is needed on campus to provide students with a space to interact with peers in order to cope with their eating concerns.

Project HEAL is the only student organization at UW-Madison centered around eating disorders. Their goal, though, is to raise awareness of eating disorders and promote body positivity, as opposed to a support group setting, but they do offer events where members can gather and talk openly.

NEDA found in the results of their study “indicate that greater funding and resources are needed to educate, screen, refer and treat college students who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating issues.”

The report also found “a significant gap in perceived need and available counseling or nutritional services by staff specializing in eating disorders,” something which may have been present at UW-Madison in the recent past. But UHS is making changes to become more accessible to students seeking help in this area.

UHS has recently begun expanding its staff and has hired access specialists, including Chanda Bolander, who will serve as eating disorder coordinator beginning this semester. She will sit down with students who come to her with concerns about their eating during two assessment sessions in which she will determine if they have a diagnosable eating disorder. She will also conduct brief therapy sessions with them if they fit UHS’ 10-session therapy model (meaning the student may just need a few meetings with a UHS counselor to lessen their food concerns) or connect them to community resources if they need longer-term care.

Bolander will also work with UHS’ eating disorder treatment team, which includes psychiatrists, nutritionists and medical providers, as well as mental health staff, and will look at individual cases of students to provide them with the proper care.

Many students have complained of long waits for counseling appointments, but Andrea Lawson, the co-director of UHS Mental Health Services, said hiring specialists like Bolander will allow more availability for providers, who used to evaluate patients as well as offer counseling, to offer treatment services.

According to the Healthy Minds study, 11.8 percent of students who responded to the survey identified having eating concerns. Lawson said this number, along with 19.7 percent affected by an eating disorder, will push UHS to prioritize these issues at UW-Madison.

“If you think of any classroom you’re in, 20 percent of that room may be dealing with an eating disorder,” Lawson said. “Anytime you can quantify it [in a one in five] relationship, it is a concern and it is something we're putting resources toward.”

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