~ Hugh Smith, Men Get Eating Disorders Too
We all know what eating disorders are, who gets them, and why. They're extreme diets used by teenage girls who want to look like supermodels.
Just as we at Men Get Eating Disorders Too are working to raise awareness that eating disorders affect men as well as women, we also work in alliance with other organisations and activists to shine a light on the reality of eating disorders as severe mental illnesses that take on many different forms ranging from binge-eating to excessive limitation, and can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, class, or sexuality.
You can read about the true nature of eating disorders at any number of blogs or in a library's worth of books and journals, but we're here today to focus on students.
If eating disorders can affect anyone it follows logically that they can affect students, and they do. But a male student with an eating disorder doesn't fit the student archetype of the hard-drinking, kebab-gorging, perma-snacking man-child. Just as the public perception of eating disorders is too simplistic, so too is the idea of the 18-year old who goes to uni, discovers take-aways, and casually puts on the 'freshman 15'.
To understand the 'student experience', it's useful to look at it in context. Being a student is a lot of people's first experience of living away from home, which coincides with a lot of life-changing opportunities and pressures: to cultivate a new personality, to make new friends, to compete with peers, to get a good degree, and even to choose a direction in life. All this at a time when most students have only just got out of the most volatile period of adolescence, are far from completely mature, are immersed in a highly stressful environment, and - for most - have substantial financial concerns.
So there we have stress, anxiety, neuroses, isolation, pressure, self-doubt, and a whole host of other conflicting feelings flying around. Is it any wonder that while some people take it in their stride, others need mechanisms to cope?
I developed an eating disorder when I was a student. I discovered that self-discipline in what I ate and how much I exercised was a shortcut to achieving an illusion of control over my life at a time when so much around me seemed so chaotic.
What do eating disorders in students look like? Honestly, a lot like eating disorders in anyone else. Look up the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, or obsessive exercise disorder, and you'll find behaviours that students exhibit as much as any other part of the population. The only difference will be in the detail: the methods used to hide food, the excuses made for skipping meals, the times and places used to binge, or the facilities used to exercise.
The most important thing to understand is not what eating disorders look like, but why they're there in the first place. Then it's possible to address the causes of the disorders rather than the symptoms.
So what can you do if you think a student - classmate, flatmate, friend, sibling, son, daughter, tutee - has an eating disorder? Here are a few golden rules:
- Conduct any conversation in a non-confrontational manner. It won't help anyone if you scare them away.
- Try to understand how they feel.
- Be aware that the conversation will be very difficult for them.
- Only explore possible solutions once you've taken some time to empathise.
- Tell them that you don't think less of them.
- Acknowledge how difficult it must be to admit to having a problem.
If you know someone who has an eating disorder, or if you have one yourself, there are four main ways to get help: your GP; your university's student support service; your local peer-support group; and online peer support through websites such as Big White Wall.
Finally, a quick message to any student struggling with an eating disorder: getting this at such a pivotal point in your life can feel like being dealt a rotten hand in a high-stakes card game. Just remember there are always people willing and able to help. In spite of everything you can achieve remarkable things. This doesn't have to define you. It's within your power. Good luck.