At university, our peers can be our most important asset when looking after our mental health, but our friends can only help if they have the knowledge to do so.
A study survey by YouGov, published on the first day of Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018, found that 1 in 3 adults is unable to name any signs of eating disorders, whilst 79% couldn’t name a single psychological symptom. With anorexia nervosa having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and less than 50% of eating disorder sufferers going on to make a full recovery, these revelations are incredibly worrying, yet somewhat understandable. Symptoms of serious mental illness occur along a continuum, and many can go unnoticed or misinterpreted: how can we tell when a lack of appetite during a stressful period becomes something more significant? When does withdrawing from friends to revise become something more serious? And when does pursuing a ‘healthy lifestyle’ teeter over into an obsession?
“You can have an eating disorder no matter what you weigh and you are deserving of help regardless of the number on the scale”
In the YouGov survey, the most commonly cited symptom of an eating disorder was weight loss or ‘being thin’ (62%), but often weight changes are only visible once the illness has progressed and behaviours have become ingrained. What’s more, many sufferers of eating disorders experience little or no change in their weight, throwing another spanner in the works when it comes to seeking treatment as they believe they aren’t ‘skinny enough’ to be worthy of help. To set the record straight: you can have an eating disorder no matter what you weigh and you are deserving of help regardless of the number on the scale.
Irrespective of weight and even eating itself, there are a whole host of symptoms that could indicate someone is struggling from an eating disorder. These illnesses affect every aspect of life and are present at more than just meal times: a sufferer may be withdrawing from social situations, having difficulty concentrating or exercising in a compulsive, obsessive manner. Personalities can shift and individuals can become more rigid in their thoughts and behaviours, more critical of themselves and less able to engage in conversation. The beeline is that eating disorders are first and foremost a mental illness, with weight loss a possible symptom amongst many.
“Features of university life can bring eating difficulties to the fore”
The transition to university and the pressures of being a student have long been recognised as triggers for poor mental health: the Royal College of Psychiatrists has been quoted saying that “social changes such as the withdrawal of financial support, higher rates of family breakdown and economic recession are all having an impact on the well-being of students.” Young people between the ages of 14 and 25 are most at risk of developing an eating disorder, and features of university life can bring eating difficulties to the fore. Both catered and self-catered living options can prove problematic, with poor choice in the former making it all too easy to go without, and a lack of accountability in the latter providing the perfect ground for poor eating habits to escalate. Many students are for the first time in total charge of what they eat, and when surrounded by academic and social pressures, food can quickly become the one thing they can control.
Beat – the UK’s national eating disorder charity – have recognised the prevalence of eating disorders in students, and on the 26th February 2018, they launched a helpline dedicated specifically to providing support to students with eating difficulties, or those worried about a friend. Eating disorders do not discriminate: they can happen to anyone. They are never an issue of vanity, and are almost always deep-rooted in low self-esteem, anxiety and control. Educate yourself, educate others, and never be afraid to ask for help.
To access Beat’s student helpline, call 0808 801 0811 or email email@example.com
Image courtesy of Franck Mahon on Flickr.