20 percent of college students suffer from eating disorders

By Nettie Hoagland

Increased workloads, sleepless nights, daunting college debt are only some of the challenges college students face. The academic and social pressures of campus life are also creating a drastic rise in eating disorders among college students, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), a nonprofit organization which supports individuals affected by eating disorders.

“Some students can navigate these challenges with few bumps; others cannot,” director and nurse practitioner at St. Michael’s College, Mary Masson said. Students who cannot handle their stress are at severe risk for developing an eating disorder, Masson said.

According to the Collegiate Survey Project launched by NEDA, eating disorders have risen among college students in the past 13 years. From 1995 to 2008, the survey found the rate of eating disorders on one college campus to have increased from 7.9 percent to 25 percent for males and 23.4 percent to 32.6 percent for females.

NEDA describes eating disorders as complex conditions that arise from behavioral, emotional, psychological, and social factors. Masson said that eating disorders typically arise or worsen during transitional phases like going to college.

“The challenges for college students such as high workloads, the cost of college and need to succeed, a new environment meeting new friends, and a constant exposure to social media where everyone puts their best self forward add to disordered eating,” Masson said.

Disordered eating is used as a coping mechanism for people who feel out of control in their environment, said Masson. “It’s not as much about food as it is about stress and coping strategies,” she added.

“Disordered eating is a way to control an often out-of-control feeling or environment,” Masson said. “Eventually the eating disorder makes the person feel the disease is controlling them,” she added.

The Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) notes that eating disorders affect people of all ages but are especially prominent between the ages of 18 and 21.

Disordered eating has prevailed in colleges for a long time, said Masson. “Now, students struggle with it earlier in life, even as young as elementary school,” she said.

According to the Walden Center for Education and Research, a nonprofit organization which supports people dealing with eating disorders, 15 percent of females 17 to 24 years old have eating disorders, and 20 percent of college students suffer from an eating disorder.

“The key to eating disorders is recovery,” said Masson. She advises students suffering from an eating disorder to seek help from a nurse practitioner, mental health counselor or nutritionist specializing in treatment of eating disorders.

“There’s a lot of shame and self blame with eating disorders,” Masson said. “A provider can help support a person who is struggling with this without shame or judgement.”