In many ways, it is not a surprise that the transition to college can be so challenging. Moving from a home with your family into campus housing, often hundreds of miles away, with roommates you’ve never met can be quite a shock. It’s rarely easy for anyone. For many young adults however, the stress and unique social and environmental factors associated with this transition can contribute to the development, or exacerbation, of an eating disorder. Consider the following statistics:
- In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, 44% were already at a normal weight.1
- 9% of 20-year-old males reported struggling with a clinical eating disorder.2
- Of nearly 3,000 students on a university campus, 3.6% of the males experienced eating disorder symptoms.3
- The rate of eating disorders among college students at one college increased from 7.9% to 25% for males and 23.4% to 32.6% for females over a 13 year period.4
College is supposed to be fun, educational and provide plenty of opportunities to be inspired by future career possibilities. So what makes this transitional time such a hotbed for eating disorders? The Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) offers several reasons why college students could be at increased risk for eating disorders. These include:
- New peer groups or difficulty forming new friendships
- Newfound self-reliance; no longer living under parental rules
- Cafeterias and dining halls with an unlimited amount of food; making food choices independently may be difficult particularly when paired with conflicting messages about dites, nutrition and calories
- Fear of the “Freshmen 15”
- The desire to fit in; an intense pressure to be “perfect”
- Academic and financial stress
- Difficulty managing transitions
While many colleges offer support and resources for students who are struggling with the transition or mental health problems in general, students do need to seek them out. This isn’t as easy as it sounds considering a recent study on eating disorder prevalence in college students found that most were not aware that they had an eating disorder or, if they were, they were not willing to seek treatment.2 According to the research, the five most common reasons why college students may feel uncomfortable or refuse to seek treatment include:
- Lack of perceived need and urgency
- Perceived stigma surrounding diagnosis and treatment
- Limited availability of services
- Denial of illness
- Lack of motivation for recovery inherent in ED
It’s important to know that you’re not alone and that help is available on and off-campus. It’s also important to know that eating disorders are serious illnesses that, if untreated, can progress rapidly and may become life-threatening.
Where can I go for help?
If you are a college student struggling with disordered eating, an unhealthy relationship with exercise, or negative body image, there are steps you can take to cultivate a more balanced and fulfilling time on campus.
- Identify treatment resources and support groups on or near you. Here is a great list of potential organizations, people and resources that might be able to help on most campuses.
- Incorporate basic self-care into your schedule.
- Get the facts about weight and diets; dispel the myth of the Freshmen 15
- Take some simple steps to strengthen your support system and break out of the loneliness or isolation you may be feeling.
Whether in college or any other stage of life, it’s crucial to ask for help and to learn that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Remember that you can’t tell how someone is handling the transition to college just by looking at them or their social media feeds. Many of the students around you may also be struggling in silence with similar feelings and symptoms.
For more information about eating disorders, body image and treatment options, visit eatingdisorder.org.
If you are a campus-based health provider and would like more information about eating disorders or trainings, please contact Jennifer Moran, Psy.D., College Liaison at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.
Written by: Julie Seechuk, BASW, Community Outreach Intern
Julie is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at Salisbury University online with an intent to graduate in May of 2020. Julie received her Bachelor’s Degree from Salisbury University in 2015 with a double major in Psychology and Social Work. In addition to pursuing her Masters and interning at The Center for Eating Disorders, Julie also works part-time as a Community Relations Coordinator for a Pediatric Oncology Nonprofit called The Cool Kids Campaign. As a community outreach intern, Julie assists with resource development, event coordination, social media and website maintenance, community outreach to schools, and The Center’s free weekly support group.
- Multi-service Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Eating Disorders College Students. Retrieved from: https://www.medainc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/MEDA-College-Guide.pdf
- Allen, K., Byme, S., Oddy, W., & Crosby, R. (2013) “DSM-IV-TR and DSM5 eating disorders in adolescents: prevalence, stability, and psychosocial correlates in a population-based sample of male and female adolescents.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
- Eisenberg, D., Nicklett, E. J., Roeder, K., & Kirz, N. E. (2011). Eating disorder symptoms among college students: prevalence, persistence, correlates, and treatment-seeking. Journal of American college health: J of ACH, 59(8), 700-7.
- White, S, Reynolds–Malear, J., Cordero, E., “Disordered Eating and the Use of Unhealthy weight control methods in college students: 1995, 2002 and 2008” Eating Disorders–Journal of treatment and prevention.