Heading off to university can be an incredibly exciting time for any student: it’s the chance to learn new skills, make new friends and explore new surroundings, all while having more control over your life than ever before.
However, it can also be a pretty daunting and overwhelming experience too. There’s a lot of pressure, both academic and social, on students and, as such, some find their
put under strain. mental wellbeing
These pressures can leave students vulnerable to developing a mental illness, or can exacerbate an already present mental health issue. And some of the biggest mental health issues for students are eating disorders.
Here’s our guide to what eating disorders are and what you can do if you – or someone you know – is affected…
What Is An Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect the way a person views their body and interacts with food. People suffering with eating disorders often have what is called ‘disordered eating behaviour’ – which can be in the form of severely restricting the amount of food they eat, or bingeing on large quantities of foods and then purging themselves of that food in ways that are unhealthy and damaging to the body.
Often this disordered eating is tied in with a distorted view of their own body (called body dysmorphia), obsessive and compulsive behaviour, and feelings of low self-esteem or depression.
Here are the most common forms:
Anorexia Nervosa: Characterised by trying to keep your weight as low as possible – either by following an extremely restrictive diet, over-consumption of dieting pills, over exercising or a combination of all. Those affected often have an intense fear of gaining weight and “being fat” and their self-esteem and happiness is often tied closely to their weight.
Bulimia: Characterised by the sufferer losing control and consuming a lot of food (usually junk food) and then either making themselves sick, using laxatives, or over-exercising to compensate. Often those affected by bulimia are of an average weight – as the purging maintains their weight – so it can be harder to spot if someone is suffering.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Characterised by binge eating huge amounts of food, followed by feeling of guilt and depression. This behaviour is usually triggered by some kind of negative emotion – like stress or depression – and those affected use food as a coping tool to help them feel better. That sense of happiness soon goes and sufferers often feel worse about themselves than they did before.
While those are the main ones, there are
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) which don’t necessarily match the above illnesses but are just as serious and real and those suffering with them need help.
What Do Eating Disorders Do To Our Body?
Eating disorders are classified as mental illnesses, but they can have a
too... Tooth decay, dry, flaky skin, fatigue, anaemia, hormone problems, fertility problems, kidney and liver problems are all caused by eating disorders. huge impact on your physical health
And if the problem goes on untreated long enough, you could even lose your life to the illness. Research conducted by eating disorder charity,
, reports that 20% of anorexia sufferers die prematurely. Beat
The seriousness of an eating disorder should never be underestimated and if you think you might need help, or know someone who does then you need to act now.
Who Gets Eating Disorders?
The stereotypical sufferer is a young(teenager), caucasian, middle to upper-class, woman. And to a certain extent the stats back this up.
the number of hospital admissions for teenage girls under the age of 19 rose from 1,050 to 2,025 between 2010 and 2017. According to reports
But while young women are certainly among the majority of sufferers in the UK, it’s not just young women who suffer from eating disorders… The BBC
that the number of boys in England, Scotland and Wales being admitted for eating disorder had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2018 (from 235 to 466 cases). recently reported
And, as leading eating disorder charity
reports, clinical research has found that the illnesses are just as common or even more common among Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups, than white people. However, their research found that sadly, people from those groups would feel less confident about seeking help. Beat
They estimate that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, though the real figure could be much higher, as many people do not seek help.
Beat also conducted research in to eating disorders at university and found that of those they spoke to,
“32% said they were diagnosed with an eating disorder at University, 39% had to dropout or take a break from studies and 69% had difficulties accessing treatment and support”.
Clearly university is a time when eating disorders – and other mental health issues – can take hold. If you are suffering then it’s important you speak to someone and seek help as soon as you can.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
There is no one single reason why someone develops an eating disorder. There are often a number of factors that can cause a person to develop the illness. However a number of common triggers can be childhood trauma, current pressures and events, ongoing anxiety and depression, a loss or gain of control over other aspects of their life.
Whatuni spoke with clinical psychotherapist & hypnotherapist, Nick Davies, who says: "Eating disorders can be created by childhood trauma, the child often learns unconsciously that they can gain some form of control over their life with their level of food intake."
The idea of control is an important one in eating disorders. Many sufferers use food as a way of taking control and giving emotional support. And the fact that being away from home at university, you have more freedom and control over what you eat and when (with no parents looking after you) can make it even easier for the illness to really take hold.
Eating Disorder charity Beat has many survivor stories that highlight the fact that everyone’s journey is different:
and says: shares her story here
“Only now am I aware I had been living my life believing my own taunts and accusations of failing to be a good enough daughter, granddaughter, sibling or friend. I created a self-induced, unreachable high standard I figured I ought to reach for myself and because I assumed others held me to this same expectation.
This meant, regardless of any achievement, it was never enough. I frequently bit off more than I could chew to assist and impress observers with my multi-tasking skills and prove my success at everything I did. I often found myself spiralling out of control and living with constant anxiety of not being in control. It was a vicious cycle: the more I tried to take control, the less I could”.
and says: shares her story here
“My first year of sixth form felt like a complete blur. I went to parties, I got a weekend job, I studied hard for tests, I aimed to wear a new outfit every single day, but I wasn’t happy, despite what my thinning face would tell others. I can’t really pinpoint when anorexia first began to creep up on me.
It wasn’t like one day I woke up and made some kind of conscious decision that I would now begin to starve myself to the point of total self-destruct. The whole process was gradual; it started with small things like skipping snacks and preparing family meals to cater to my new ‘healthy lifestyle’, and I did not think I was doing anything wrong, or at least that’s what anorexia had managed to convince me.
This continued for months and probably reached its worst as I began to sit my AS levels in April 2016. By this point, food was the only thing I could think about. I swapped playing my guitar for a half-hour walk each day, and everything I had once loved perished into thin air.
What I’m trying to say is that, ultimately, all I wanted was to be the best. Perfectionism is a trait often associated with anorexia sufferers, and is something that I continue to find hard to believe could be linked to myself. In my eyes, nothing I do will ever be good enough, so how could I possibly be called a perfectionist when I never actually reach both my own and society’s standards of perfection?
Throughout my entire time at school, I never got full marks on a test, I never had the most friends, I wasn’t the teacher’s first choice when giving examples of an A* student, but actually, pre-2015 I don’t think I cared. It seems to me the moment I walked into sixth form something in my brain decided that I had to be nothing but ‘the best’."
You can read other stories from eating disorder sufferers
Symptoms Of An Eating Disorder
Those affected by eating disorders often become very good at covering up their illness until it’d too late. But here are a few signs you can look out for:
Fear of looking fat, openly stating that they look and feel fat
Following eating plans or diets – obsessively weighing out food
Avoiding eating with others
General avoidance of social events or spending time with friends/family
Rapid weight loss or weight gain
Looking tired or complaining of dizzy spells
Becoming angry or defensive when asked about food or their eating
What To Do If You Think You, Or Someone You Know, Has An Eating Disorder?
If you think your relationship with food has become unhealthy or out of control, or you have someone close you that you think might be suffering from an eating disorder then the good news is that there is plenty of help out there for you…
The best person to speak to is, of course, a doctor. But if you don’t feel confident in doing that then there are plenty of online resources available to give you advice on how to spot the symptoms – the NHS website is the best for this.
There are also many charities set up to help eating disorder sufferers. Beat, for example, has a
, including a helpline, online support groups and one-to-one web chat. This is great for those who don’t have the confidence to speak to someone in person and want to seek help but stay anonymous – at least for now. number of support services
If you do want to talk face-to-face but don’t want to see a doctor, then many universities and colleges offer students wellbeing support officers who will talk to you in confidence and give you support.
Take a look here at which universities have excelled in their efforts to support students.
What Treatment Is Available?
As there is no one single cause of an eating disorder, there is no one single treatment. This is not something that a 2-week course of antibiotics will make go away. It may be that a combination of therapies is needed to help you overcome the illness.
The most common form of treatment is Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps patients think about the way they feel and act in certain situations and then teaches then ways of altering that behaviour.
CBT deals with the practical, ‘here-and-now’ aspects of the illness to change the way the patient thinks and acts going forward. It doesn’t really explore what the root cause of the illness could be, but instead focuses on coping mechanisms to manage the illness.
There are other forms of therapy available, including:
Cognitive analytic therapy (CAT)
Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
Focal psychodynamic therapy (FPT)
The most important thing to remember is that no one chooses to have an eating disorder. It’s not your fault if you are suffering and people who care (doctors, your uni, your family) won’t judge or blame you.
It’s important not to fear seeking help or advice – or feel ashamed or weak for doing so. Eating disorders can happen to anyone and is not a sign of failure.
Finally, an eating disorder can have devastating effects on your body so you need to seek help as soon as possible. The good news is that, as mentioned above, there are so many resources out there now for you. So please, speak to someone and get the help and support you deserve.