How can Colleges and Universities Support Students with Eating Disorders?

Written by MEDA Undergraduate Intern, Sydney Mansfield 

Up to 20% of female college students and 7% of male college students experience an eating disorder at some point.  While that may not seem like a lot, about 20.4 million students started college in the fall of 2017. The percentages might seem small, but the number of college students struggling with these disorders is not. Despite the large number of students struggling with eating disorders, resources for eating disorders at colleges and universities are limited.

So – how can colleges and universities support students with eating disorders, and how can they increase awareness and outreach?

To start, colleges can partner with eating disorder organizations to host events and fundraisers. For example, UMASS Amherst partnered with NEDA to host a NEDA walk and raised over $14,000. There are so many great eating disorder organizations, like NEDA or MEDA, that would love to partner with universities to raise awareness about eating disorders among college students.

MEDA provides education and awareness services to universities by bringing free presentations to campuses and communities.  The MEDA staff could present to resident hall advisers, faculty and staff, and/or students. These presentations educate communities on what to look out for if you suspect someone is struggling with an eating disorder as well as how to create body positive communities.

Resident hall advisers see students nearly every day and often live in the same building as their residents. They can act as authority figures, older siblings, and even friends. Resident hall advisers and their residents can become extremely close, which means having them trained in eating disorder awareness would be beneficial for the university and the student body. RA’s could be a way for eating disorder intervention to happen sooner in someone’s journey to eating disorder recovery.

Resident hall advisers can also host programs and events for their residents. With training, they could host programs centered around eating disorder prevention. This could be anything from how to cope with stress in a healthy way, to training their residents on what to notice if their friends have developed an eating disorder and how to get them help.

Once training is in place, universities could have talks, public forums and events using resources the school already has in conjunction with MEDA or other eating disorder organizations. Universities often host events raising awareness for depression and sexual assault, which is great, but more universities need to raise awareness of eating disorders. University mental health counselors, health staff and professors could put together a panel or discussion on the mental, physical, and social effects of eating disorders. They could also include an eating disorder specialist therapist and/or dietitian from the community on the panel. The panel or public forum could be joined by stress relief workshops to teach students recovering or at risk of developing an ED how to cope with the stress of college in a healthy manner. Another fun activity could be a trivia game, run by a dietitian or ED specialist, debunking false health claims.  Students could play the trivia game and win small prizes while also learning critical facts.

Having the dining halls be recovery-friendly is also invaluable. College students are in charge of making their own food choices, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Making sure the different foods offered do not have calories or other nutritional facts plastered next to them is key to preventing restrictive eating. This way, people recovering from eating disorders can avoid being triggered by the numbers and be more likely to have success in the process of recovery while away at school.

Lastly, having an eating disorder therapist on staff at each universities’ counseling center would be beneficial for a few reasons: If people are coming into college with an ED or if they are coming in while in recovery or even post-recovery, having the option to see an eating disorder therapist with the convenience of having it on campus would aid students in continuing their recovery journey while still attending classes.  Additionally, if a student develops an eating disorder while at school, they would be able to seek help immediately on campus. When help is conveniently available, students are more likely to seek it out. If the university cannot employ a full-time eating disorder specialist, they could invite MEDA to train the counseling center staff on identifying and treating students struggling with eating disorders.

With the amount of college students struggling from eating disorders, universities really need to step up their game and make sure they have supports in place for these students. Though doing everything at once may seem unrealistic and daunting, making little changes along the way will make all the difference and ultimately help many students.