Although not well-known or understood until the 1960s (although thy had been identified as early as the eighteenth century), eating disorders and disordered eating generally have become significant sources of concern and emotional difficulty and they remain important and problematic. Some studies suggest as many as 15% of college age women have some eating disorder. 25-30% have had symptoms; and 85% are female. If disordered eating is included, many suggest that up to 40% of college students exhibited some characteristics of disordered eating. Eating disorders are serious and may lead to death in as many as 10% of those who suffer from chronic disorders.
While symptoms of eating disorders often don’t appear until puberty or later, most professionals believe the roots of these complex issues often relate to early childhood and may involve complicated aspects of relationships with parents or caregivers.
In general, symptoms often manifest as attempts to maintain or regain a sense of control and/or independence over oneself by rigid, visible control of their body. But the root of these issues often relate to a combination of psychological, biological and social factors.
Psychologically, people who may develop eating issues often feel a loss of control of their lives, and dieting, purging, or restricting become ways to try to maintain or regain this control. Biologically, many people who develop these symptoms, many be dealing with depression other psychological issues. And socially, our cultural emphasis on thinness, can become a driving force for some, such that they feel the only way they can be accepted or acceptable is to have what they, or their peers, consider the “ideal” body.
We have come a long way in our understanding of eating disorders, and effective psychological treatment can be very beneficial and can help people work through these issues with considerable success, although it is often important to receive effective psychological help.
Fortunately, there are many professionals with training in working with people struggling with eating issues and the results are very promising.
Professional staff at the Counseling and wellness Center have specific training and experience in these issues and can help students navigate these difficult issues.
Here re some guidelines for helping a friend who may be dealing with an eating disorder:
If you and others have observed behaviors in your friend or roommate that are suggestive of an eating disorder, you are in a position to help.
- Make a plan to approach the person in a private place when there is no immediate stress and time to talk.
- Present in a caring but straightforward way what you have observed and what your concerns are. Tell him or her that you are worried and want to help. (Friends who are too angry with the person to talk supportively should not be a part of this discussion.)
- Give the person time to talk and encourage them to verbalize feelings. Ask clarifying questions. Listen carefully; accept what is said in a non-judgmental manner.
- Do not argue about whether there is or is not a problem–power struggles are not helpful. Perhaps you can say, “I hear what you are saying and I hope you are right that this is not a problem. But I am still very worried about what I have seen and heard, and that is not going to go away.”
- Provide information about resources for treatment. Explain that the services of the Counseling Center on campus are free and totally confidential. Offer to go with the person to the Counseling Center and wait while they have their first appointment. Ask them to consider going for one appointment before they make a decision about ongoing treatment. If they would prefer to see a nurse practitioner or nutritionist, let them know that that is available through the Health Center.
- If you are concerned that the eating disorder is severe or life-threatening, enlist the help of the Counseling Center, Health Center, relative, friend, or roommate of the person before you intervene. Present a united and supportive front with others.
- If the person denies the problem, becomes angry, or refuses treatment, understand that this is often part of the illness. Besides, they have a right to refuse treatment (unless their life is in danger). You may feel helpless, angry, and frustrated with them. You might say, “I know you can refuse to go for help, but that will not stop me from worrying about you or caring about you. I may bring this up again to you later, and maybe we can talk more about it then.” Follow through on that—and on any other promise you make.
- Do not try to be a hero or a rescuer; you will probably be resented. If you do the best you can to help on several occasions and the person does not accept it, stop. Remind yourself you have done all it is reasonable to do. Eating disorders are stubborn problems, and treatment is most effective when the person is truly ready for it. You may have planted a seed that helps them get ready.
- Eating disorders are usually not emergency situations. But, if the person is suicidal or otherwise in serious immediate danger, get professional help immediately.