Eating Disorders in College Life – a Hidden Mental Health Problem

University can be incredibly stressful for some. Sambhavi Sudhakar examines how this stress can minfest itself in eating disorders.

In anticipation of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018, USI (Union of Students in Ireland) released a statement about how stress amongst college students can result in poor mental health. USI also stated that it is essential students seek help if needed and that mental health should be discussed more openly on college campuses. The USI President Michael Kerrigan mentioned in the press release that it is essential that Students’ Unions, staff, and friends are aware of the negative impacts of stress at university. He recommended that students follow a healthy schedule which includes recreation and exercise alongside studying.

Eoghan Mac Domhnaill, Welfare Officer of UCDSU provides some insight into the occurrence of eating disorders among students. In concurrence with the report, he says, “There is a lot of stress during exams and submissions. That, for a lot of students can lead to complications and eating disorders. Sometimes, students don’t even realise it themselves.”

Speaking about how eating disorders are perceived in society, Julianne Casey, the mental health coordinator of UCDSU says, “I think there is a lot of relevance to the USI report. Eating disorders are disorders which people still often overlook or stigmatise.” Casey echoes the sentiments that stress can play a role in developing or worsening an eating disorder. “Stress is deemed a risk factor when talking about eating disorders and works in conjugation with other risk factors also, and it is important that we talk about the relationship between eating disorders and stress. Students are under a huge amount of stress regarding exams, assignments, and general student life, and as a result of this their mental health often suffers.”

Colin Kingston, a psychiatric nurse at Community Mental Health Services says whilst he has come across few “cases of eating disorders in students,” he has observered how courses with increased stress and pressure have negatively affected students. “The cases I have come across have been medical students and PhD students, or those who are generally taking very specific and challenging degrees.”

“There is a lot of stress during exams and submissions. That, for a lot of students can lead to complications and eating disorders”

Another insight from Kingston is that the development of eating disorders among students can be owing to problems external to academics, “Normally the eating disorder traits, behaviours, and symptomology appear to have deeper psychological roots that may be present long before attending university.”

Casey raises concerns over how eating disorders can be handled in society, saying she thinks they  “are often trivialised… which is something that is extremely dangerous to do.” Kingston talks about the need for people to seek help, and says part of the reason why he has seen so few cases of eating disorders amongst students is “because people who people who experience eating disorders generally do not seek help as they do not believe that they have a problem.”

Kingston emphasises the dangers of staying silent and not reaching out for help: “The cases that I have come across have been those that have been hospitalised as they are so severely underweight and require refeeding and to gain a certain amount of weight before they are cognitively able to engage with psychological psychotherapeutic work.”

“Generally people who experience eating disorders do not seek help as they do not believe that they have a problem.”

Casey believes the USI report is particularly relevant as it highlights “how important it is to lead a balanced life physically and mentally, encouraging students to take care of themselves not just during these stressful times but throughout the year. I think it’s especially important to pay attention to the advice given within this report; to look after one another, educate ourselves on the affect stress has on our mental health, and to have an open conversation regarding mental health, and eating disorders to help de-stigmatize and raise awareness about these issues.”

Mac Domhnaill agrees that more open discussion is needed to help students. With this aim in mind he says, “UCDSU is organising its Mind, Body, and Soul festival towards the end of the semester. This venture facilitates open discussion in relation to both mental health in general and eating disorders in particular. This facility also lets students know about the services available to them.”

Mental health awareness is one of the key issues of discussion in university campuses. Through the above perspectives, it is evident that there is a sound platform for the discussion of these problems in contemporary Irish colleges. However, with the amount of pressure UCD’s counselling service is under at the present moment, there are almost certainly students who are suffering and slipping between the cracks.