Eating Disorders Awareness Week shows that student hunger for greater university support still exists


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The Independent Online

Universities are bastions of intellectual growth, yet some students are feeling let down by the support on offer to them.

Statistics obtained from the Office for Fair Access show a record number of young people in the UK applying for university, with a 49 per cent increase in applications in 2013, and it is imperative that campus services are properly serving the growing student body. However, during Eating Disorder Awareness Week (24 February-2 March) young people have expressed their concerns over the support provided by higher education institutions for those suffering from an eating disorder.

Tangible support is often hampered by misconceptions relating to the classification of eating disorders. A recent psychiatric study shows that amongst the disorders of anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa, it is EDNOS – or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified - which is the most prevalent.

Diagnosis of eating disorders relies heavily upon BMI. This often hides the full extent a person is suffering from what is a mental illness. As one male student from Manchester University was told by his GP, “you're not a very high treatment priority with your BMI… Have you tried bulking up with protein shakes?”

The student lifestyle is often characterised as lacking routine, with young people balancing heavy drinking and socialising with the demands of study and career prospects. BEAT, the UK’s largest charity for supporting those with eating disorders found that of 200 students surveyed, 32 per cent of people were diagnosed as having an eating problem after starting their course. More than 50 per cent of those surveyed said their university did not provide adequate support for students with eating disorders or to identify those at risk.

This was much the case with one female student studying at Imperial College in London. After recovering prior to attending university, she soon “relapsed under the pressure". She says that “having an eating disorder at university is more isolating and scary than having one at home as a young person". This view is shared by another student, studying at York, who says that “I feel I will only really get on the road to recovery when I leave university, which for me particularly, has not been a good environment to ensure my mental stability”.

The same student from Imperial cites the lack of qualified staff to speak to about her eating problem. “There has been nobody available to speak to. The GP did not take me seriously – I had to return a number of times before they listened. Once the GP did listen to me I was informed there was at least a two to four month wait for therapy and that accessing the services was difficult, leaving me to seek out private therapy.”

In a similar vein, another student currently studying at UCL was told she was “susceptible to getting anorexia” by her counsellor, but then no further action was taken. Many students are left feeling the support on offer is unhelpful. One student from York remembers “in my first course of therapy from them, I was put in a group to discuss my problem, which is really not helpful, as we could all encourage each other to keep going. In this sense, the university has failed me in really getting me into recovery.”

With the rise of social media, the "competition" existing between sufferers has proliferated across networking platforms. From pro-ana websites to misspelled "pro-ED" hashtags that slip under normal controls, students suffering from eating problems are able to access websites designed to sink them further into their conditions.

One student knows this all too well, but is not however myopic in her outlook on the role of popular media in eating disorders.

She said: “I feel that social media has impacted the competitive element of my eating disorder. However I do not believe that the social media is in any way responsible for my eating disorder.”

Unwittingly, the hashtag #EDAW2014 has become the site of tension between young people. Those who have included pictures or their past BMIs on social networking sites, have according to one student, failed to realise their behaviour is “highly triggering to other young people.” Recovering before attending university, one female student from Edinburgh University made a point of refusing to, as she remembers “tell how little my weight dropped to, give out pictures of myself when I was ill, or disclose how little I ate.”

A consensus amongst the students I spoke to was that universities need to offer specific welfare packages for those suffering from eating disorders, not a one size fits all approach. Others have called for awareness programmes to make people aware of the dangers and subliminal pressures contained within social media, and a move away from the dominant tropes of student activism and campaigning that eclipse the harsher realities.