Back to school: Addressing eating disorders on college campuses

Back to school: Addressing eating disorders on college campuses
Back to school: Addressing eating disorders on college campuses

The Academy for Eating Disorders hosted a tweet chat concerning the treatment and prevention of eating disorders on college campuses, as a timely reminder of how rampant these diseases are on college campuses. As the semester starts, it is worthwhile for administrators, teachers, and other students to be aware of these issues, warning signs to watch for, and the best way to treat eating disorders on campus.

The tweet chat guests included Alan Duffy, MS, who is the Associate Director of The Body Project Collaborative and Research Process Coordinator at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado and Casey Tallent, PhD, the National Outreach Coordinator for Eating Recovery Center. They both work extensively with prevention and treatment of eating disorders in the college population.

The tweet chat started with covering the incidence and prevalence of eating disorders on college campuses. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 25 percent of male and 32 percent of female college students have an eating disorder, which are very alarming statistics. Additionally, the majority of eating disorders occur between the ages of 12 and 25, which spans both high school and college years. College is a critical time in which students learn to be independent, expand their horizons, and push themselves to excel; these crucial developmental markers are hampered by eating disorders.

The high prevalence in this cohort is most often attributed to genetic and personal factors that are triggered in a transitional environment. Eating and exercise can become ways of coping with the stress of school or even the transition of being away from home. The popular fear of gaining the “Freshman 15” and peer influence can make them more vulnerable to the onset or relapse of an eating disorder.

Duffy and Tallent suggested ways that both families could help with the college transition as well as how universities could help with prevention or recovery on campus. Families need to be loving, supportive, and understand that the transition is not always easy. If their child is currently struggling with an eating disorder, they should ensure that there is a treatment team on-site that will be responsible for their child’s care at college. The Academy for Eating Disorders can help find resources and professionals nearby if families have difficulty locating a treatment team either within the university or surrounding area.

For universities, it is imperative that they are aware of these issues that many of their students may face and have a referral system for students needing care at school. Faculty and staff should also be briefed on warning signs to look for so that early identification and treatment can happen, ensuring the student a better chance of recovery. Treatment and referral guidelines, as well as early intervention and prevention-focused programs are useful. Sometimes the best chance of recovery for a student will necessitate them taking a medical leave from school, depending on the severity of the case.

Alan Duffy works on the Body Project, one such prevention-focused program, using cognitive-dissonance and peer leaders to work on prevention of eating disorders especially among women. Duffy explained that the program uses a series of activities to challenge dissonant beliefs and attitudes about appearance and weight to help alter their beliefs and lead to change. The program is expanding to men, but the evidence-base for men is still building. It is imperative that there is evidence that the Body Project will do no harm to men before it is implemented more broadly.

So far, there is extensive evidence that the project is working. There are 15 years of research showing consistent reductions in thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorder symptoms, dietary restriction, and negative affect. It has also been replicated in seven different labs with similar results.

Tallent closed out the talk by providing her experience for forming a treatment team at a small college. She stated that they often start with a therapist or another provider on campus and sometimes have to reach out to the community to create a whole treatment team for a student. She also consults to help small schools overcome barriers to forming treatment teams.


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