By Johnna Ossie
Eating disorders are a common problem among college-age students, but they often go unnoticed or undiscussed. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders have been steadily on the rise in the United States since the 1950s. Stigma around eating disorders, including who is affected, and what they look like, often keeps students who are struggling quiet. Fear of recovery and what that entails may also keep people with eating disorders from seeking help.
There are many different types of eating disorders, and they show up in different ways. Eating disorders are equal opportunity illnesses that affect people of all genders, all ethnicities and all socioeconomic groups. Many people have a specific idea of what a person with an eating disorder looks like, and this stigma can be problematic for those who want to seek help.
A USM student, who chose to remain anonymous, discussed how she had trouble seeking help because she did not feel she had the typical appearance of someone with an eating disorder.
“I didn’t feel like anyone would believe me because I wasn’t super skinny, and that made me feel even more hopeless,” she said. “I didn’t think I deserved help.”
If you think you or a friend may be struggling with or developing an eating disorder, there are some signs to be aware of. Some things to look for include the following: an excessive concern with weight gain or loss, a dramatic change in eating habits or an intense focus on how much food is eaten or the calorie content of the food. Other signs may include taking diet pills or appetite suppressants, excessively exercising, vomiting after meals and eating in secrecy.
Eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, and often need help and treatment from a group of professionals. If you are living with an eating disorder, there are resources to get help.
The NEDA’s website is a great place to start. The offer a helpline, an online chat service as well as a crisis textline. Through the NEDA website you can take an eating disorder screening test, find support groups and find treatment options. The website also offers support and resources for friends, family and loved ones to help people they know with eating disorders.
The USM Health and Counseling Center is an important resource for students looking for help with an eating disorder. Every USM student has access to twelve free counseling sessions per year, and that can be extended if students feel they need more. Dr. Bob Small, psychologist and director of Counseling Services, says the center sees a number of students with eating disorders, and have many means of supporting them.
The Health and Counseling Center can refer students to the treatment center at Mercy Hospital, as well as other local community providers. They work with an off-campus psychiatrist who students can see for a $30 fee. The center is staffed with licensed counselors who are able to diagnosis, work with and advise students with eating disorders.
Dr. Small emphasized that people struggling with eating disorders often feel shame, which can make it difficult for them to seek help or treatment.
“I think people feel so ashamed they don’t want to come forward,” he said, “but it’s just what’s going on, it’s treatable, and we’re here to help.”
Students who want to speak with a counselor at the Health and Counseling Center can walk in to speak with someone, or schedule a consultation to see if counseling is something that would be helpful for them. Centers are located at 105 Payson Smith in Portland, 125 Upton Hall in Gorham and are open five days a week. Counselors also travel to the Lewiston/Auburn campus one day a week.
The Well, located in the Student Center in Portland, also offers information and resources for eating disorders. A graduate student intern staffs the Well and can direct students to resources and information available for students. The Well is open Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
No matter what, you don’t have to struggle with an eating disorder alone. Seeking help can be scary, but life is better after recovery. There is a lot of help and support available for those with eating disorders. Wherever you are on your path to recovery, if you are struggling to stay healthy or have yet to begin, you are worth recovery and you deserve to be well.