Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Bringing a hidden problem into the light

With stressed students - both male and female - at increased risk of developing an eating disorder, it's as important as ever to show that help is on offer

Poppy Danby
Monday 24 February 2014 15:58 GMT

Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK alone and claim more lives than any other mental illness. However, with 69 per cent of university students having difficulty accessing treatment, Eating Disorders Awareness Week aims to challenge stereotypes, and improve both the support and awareness of the condition.

The charity Student Minds notes that one in 10 people in the UK will experience partial or full symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating at some point in their lives. Whilst this is not an age-specific statistic, research shows that 18-25 year olds are particularly vulnerable to developing serious mental illnesses, with around 25 per cent of all students facing worrying levels of psychological distress.

A lack of routine, heightened insecurities and the desire to establish an identity are all attributed as ED triggers which emerge as students leave home and start life at university.

However, university lifestyle itself is also thought to contribute significantly, with the emerging disorder of "drinkorexia" highlighting the issue.

This new trend, which affects mainly women, consists of students severely limiting their calorie intake throughout the day, in order to use them on alcohol at night.

Despite this knowledge, statistics from the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, indicate that not enough is being done at universities to prevent and help eating disorders.

In the largest survey of its kind, Beat’s results showed that 57 per cent of students suffering from an eating disorder at university had to either take a break from their studies or even leave altogether.

Natasha Devon, the co-founder of another ED charity, Body Gossip, believes that ED problems amongst young people were getting worse.

"Ideas of beauty are becoming more extreme and we are encouraged to direct our dissatisfaction and anxiety into our body shape," she says.

Body Gossip is a movement that encourages people to be the best version of themselves - giving young people the tools and confidence they need to navigate the media’s representations of fashion and beauty on their own terms.

"The media is always obsessed with extreme cases," says Natasha. "But this only either gives people a foundation for starting their illness or makes them feel as though their disorder is not severe enough to seek help.

"This means that lots of people who have bodies in the middle of the extremes are not represented or given a voice. Our campaign seeks to appeal to and include everyone - restricting the competitive nature that eating disorders often have."

Although Body Gossip workshops are around 70 per cent female-dominated, this does not mean that only girls are affected by eating disorders. Approximately 11 per cent of all sufferers are male.

Natasha explained: "Girls are much more open to talking about eating disorders but there is just as much need for boys.

"Males often don’t realize that they have a problem, as they are conditioned to think that taking protein shakes and going to the gym every day is normal and good for their health.

"The fact is, men aren’t seen to be as vulnerable as women. The cover of male health magazines are presented as something to aspire to, whereas the models on women's fashion titles are seen as manipulative and promoting anorexia."

To illustrate this, "Body Gossip: The Book" has an entire chapter dedicated to the experiences of men. But far from segregating the their issues from women’s, the chapter emphasizes the fact that men suffer with the idea of body image too.

Alongside the book and workshops, students are also actively involved in the campaign’s mission to spread awareness of eating disorders and maintain a healthy mental attitude towards appearance.

"Body Gossip on Tour" is a university project that calls out for students to write in with their experiences, which are then performed by drama groups.

Currently around six universities are involved with the project, including the University of East Anglia, Warwick and York.

It has been proven that positive social adjustment and close social relationships increase the likelihood of recovery from mental health problems. With eating disorders seeing fewer than 50 percent of people making a full recovery, by spreading the message and making people aware of the issues, crucial support can be provided at every level.

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