September marks the month when thousands of young people embark on, what will often be their final leg of their educational journey. Universities across England will be welcoming hopeful undergraduate students, many of whom will be living away from home for the first time. This transition may feel like a welcome change and for many this life stage will be remembered as one of the happiest in their lives. For some, however, this will come to mark the beginning of a life-long battle. Research shows that eating disorders flourish in the college/university environment, - in fact the onset for eating disorders typically happen around this time if not before. But what are the reasons for this and what are some of the things that family and friends can do in order to prevent your loved one from developing an eating disorder?
It is the day that most children have been waiting for growing up, - the day when they are no longer answering to their parents, can come and go as they please and are in a position to exercise a greater degree of autonomy. Moving into a student hall, suddenly no one will tell you what to eat, when to eat, how often to clean, and when to do your homework. And desirable as this may be, the reality for a great number of young women (and men) is a different one. Separating from the family of origin can be particularly difficult for some adolescents. The anxiety and difficult feelings that may arise in the face of this overwhelming change might be temporarily relieved by exercising control over one’s body and food, one of the only things that may feel within your control.
The body’s way of communicating that all is not well
All eating disorders are ultimately a person’s way of communicating to the world that all is not well. However, the messages can be confusing for adolescents who, besides excelling academically, also feel under pressure to fit in and look a certain way. Opportunities for body comparisons are plentiful when you room share, and body hang-ups might be magnified in such an environment. And although eating disorders is a disorder of secrecy, worryingly strict diets, purging, and the use of laxatives are becoming acceptable behaviour in some college environments. The normalization of this devastating disorder could therefore be the biggest threat to treatment.
Whether Anorexia, Bulimia, or Compulsive Overeating, eating disorders are serious psychological illness that can result in death. It can be devastating to watch as your teenage child gets taken over by these detrimental behaviours. Recognizing some of the warning signs will assist you, whether you are a friend, a parent or a family member, in providing the right kind of support.
Unfortunately we are not always given overt physical clues when it comes to eating disorders, but a marked weight loss or gain is an obvious cause for concern. Because eating disorders thrive on secrecy, isolation is common. Other signs that all is not well might be a change in academic performance and signs that your loved one is depressed or obsessed with body image and suddenly exercising manically.
What can you do?
For the young adult for whom this separation proves difficult, as a parent you can assist in making this transition as gradual as possible. It might be a good idea to suggest to your child to come home on weekends, and take an active interest in their new life. Ultimately, however, no one can stop anyone from developing an eating disorder. The development of an eating disorder is rarely a conscious choice and what we know is that some people are genetically predisposed, and therefore particularly vulnerable when in an environment full of triggers. Perhaps the most powerful thing we, as parents and family can contribute is an environment in which these triggers are minimized.