Eating Disorders Among Reasons Why College Students Consider Leaving College
By Timberline Knolls
Many students are thinking about leaving college, and their struggles with mental health concerns like eating disorders are a major reason why.
A survey of 2,000 college students, parents, and family members found that nearly 40% of students thought about leaving their academic institutions within the past year. For some, lack of mental health support was a key factor behind their doubts about whether they should complete their degrees, with 77% of respondents reporting struggles with an eating disorder.
Nationally, eating disorders affect about 11%-17% of cisgender women and 4% of cisgender men on college campuses across the country. These devastating illnesses also impact 12.3% of gender-expansive college students, 11.1% of genderqueer and gender-nonconforming students, 10.5% of transmasculine students, and 6.3% of transfeminine students in the United States.
A challenging time
The college years can be a challenging time for young adults, one that comes with stressors they may not have encountered before. Students typically contend with a much less structured environment than that of high school, and they must learn to balance an intense workload with making new friends.
“College can be a time of a lot of excitement and stimulation and also a lot of stress,” Alison Baker, M.D., a child and adolescent psychopharmacologist, told Child Mind Institute. “It asks young people who are not yet adults to act in a very adult way, especially if they’re contending with mental illness and suddenly have to begin managing it on their own.”
For transgender, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming students, those stressors are often compounded by other factors in their lives. College might be the first time they have the freedom to explore their gender identities, and that can lead to an intense focus on body shape or size. Others may encounter people or policies that reject their gender identities, leading to severe distress or potential gender dysphoria.
Finding a sense of control
There are many reasons why a college student might develop an eating disorder, but a need for control and a drive for perfection often top the list of risk factors for this age group.
When so many things might feel completely out of their hands, the way they eat or shaping how their body looks might become the one area of their life that they feel like they can control during such a stressful time. This can be particularly true for students who struggle with perfectionism.
Many college students may feel intense anxiety if they don’t get things right in every aspect of their lives. They may feel overwhelmed if their grades aren’t perfect or they aren’t making friends as quickly as they thought that they would.
The new environment, stress, and drive to control it all can be the perfect storm that leads a college student to develop an eating disorder. And without the right support, many students are now worried that they won’t make it to graduation, according to the survey.
Getting to graduation
If a college student thinks that they may have an eating disorder, it’s important that they get a professional assessment to determine the type and level of care that is right for them. The best place to start is at a student’s college health center, which can allow them to access treatment right on campus and experience the least amount of interruption to their academic career.
But not all colleges and universities have the resources to help students who are struggling with mental health concerns like eating disorders. That doesn’t mean that help isn’t available. Students can also reach out to their primary care provider or find a facility that specializes in eating disorder treatment.
Eating disorders can impact people at any age, but they often affect young adults as they head off to college. But with the right support, college students can find recovery and enjoy successful academic careers.