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CMU students talk about their experiences with EDs

It is estimated that almost 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, and college students are some of the most susceptible to developing them. Sufferers of the illness may feel as though they are alone in their struggle, but in reality there is a significant chance that at least one of their classmates shares a similar situation.

Many students are not aware of resources both on-campus and off-campus that are available to help them. Even then, Carnegie Mellon does not offer many specialized services for eating disorders on campus. When thinking about what Carnegie Mellon has to offer, the response I received was mostly limited to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) offered free-of-charge for students. However, the accessibility of the services remains a concern to some.

Some have found that it is difficult to schedule an appointment, taking up to weeks. The cost of off-campus services such as therapists, intensive outpatient (IOP), and hospitalization can be out of students’ budget or can be a daunting time commitment. Further, the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking help may further steer students away. However, when I reached out to people on campus, there were a handful of students who wanted to break the silence by opening up about how eating disorders impacted their lives.

Dietrich sophomore Sarah Shaheen is nearly the ideal college student. She seems to strike a balance between a strong academic performance and an active social life. To others, she is perceived as happy and confident. However, she also happens to struggle with anorexia. Already existing struggles with anxiety, combined with issues with body image, pushed her into a vicious relationship of restricting food and exercising. It didn’t take long before she realized she had to “choose between [her] eating disorder and a life in college.”

Freshman orientation week required stamina that an eating disorder couldn’t sustain. Classes became more demanding. Many social events, from get-togethers to on-campus organizations, included food somewhere. Some people close to her started picking up clues to her illness. Although she thought she was recovering, she found out right before spring break that she had hit her lowest weight. As a result, she spent her first spring break at college at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). After inpatient treatment, she was recommended to follow through with IOP, but the demanding time constraint seemed to be too much to balance with school. Ultimately, she decided not to. She was not aware that a significant number of Carnegie Mellon students have gone through IOP care through UPMC during their time in college, and accommodations to help students receive treatment while pursuing their education are available. When hearing this, she reflected and said that knowing this may have impacted how she evaluated her pros and cons and perhaps even her final decision.

Like Shaheen, CIT freshman Kaylee Liang’s struggles with eating disorders began before she came to college. She, as well as some others, found that the rigors of university helped her keep her mind off her disorder and thus aided with her recovery. However, she cites stress as one of her main triggers of urges to relapse, which is a common trigger for many other college students who suffer from the illness. New pressures, such as moving away from home for the first time and academic stress, can often push students towards a desire for control or perfection, especially at such a competitive school as Carnegie Mellon.

Liang also brings up an important aspect of the discussion of eating disorders: cultural pressure. Eating disorder rates are climbing in East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea. The booming plastic surgery industry in Korea, for example, may drive people towards unrealistic body images. It doesn’t help that with the relatively collectivist nature of the cultures in these countries, this pressure can further reinforce the stigma around mental health and impose a desire for conformity, potentially discouraging individuals from talking about their struggles or seeking the help that they need.

Racial minorities, in general, tend to have higher rates of undiagnosed eating disorders, an aspect of eating disorders that commonly gets overlooked.

Other sides of the issue on campus are block sizes and dining options. Some students have encouraged the university to make changes to meal plans. Shaheen suggested a sample guideline to show what healthy portions look like for different types of people. Eating disorders can be sneaky and can be “hard to tell when you’re slipping up.” What can make recovering from an eating disorder so difficult lies in trying to bounce back to “normalcy.” It can be hard to recall what normalcy was or even define what a healthy diet even consists of.

A sample guideline, Shaheen argues, could give students at least a loose benchmark as to what “normalcy” might look like given their activities and their basic needs. University Health Services (UHS) does have a nutritionist on staff, but only for two days a week, making it potentially incompatible with the schedules of students who may need help.
Food insecurity has also been cited as a problem. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, had struggled with anorexia in the past. Today, she is still struggling with the illness and the physical consequences she has been battling for years. The burden of food insecurity places additional pressure on her, often leaving her no choice but to restrict her diet, further exacerbating her condition.

Those in her situation may also find that having an excuse to continue previous behaviors may hamper efforts to recover. To help with the broader problem of food insecurity, Carnegie Mellon recently established a food pantry.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) announced that this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme for 2019, “Come as You Are,” aims to broaden the conversation of eating disorders and promote more unifying conversations on the topic.

Although topics like healthy eating habits and positive body image pop up in events like our annual Fresh Check Day, it is imperative that students know that there is help available, and that there is no shame in seeking it. “You don’t have to hit rock bottom before you get help,” Shaheen says. Prevention and early detection are some of the most effective ways of treating eating disorders. If you or someone you know may be struggling, The Tartan encourages you to reach out.