Eating disorders. A topic close to my heart, the various psychiatric afflictions that fall under this wide umbrella are still seen by some as taboo or alien. It is undoubtedly a difficult topic to grapple with. Often brushed off as a diet-gone-wrong, greed or self-obsession to an extreme degree, the world of disordered eating is still in need of attention, especially in universities. With 1.25 million people in the UK alone suffering from an eating disorder, it is not hard to speculate that a large handful of fellow students sitting in your lecture hall right now are experiencing some kind of disordered eating.
Imagine this scenario: it is a Tuesday and you have just arrived at your usual lecture. You sit down, take out your laptop and prepare to listen for the next 50 minutes. Around you, there seems to be a buzz of normality and positivity; students are talking amongst themselves, the lecturer is preparing their slides and the room has a general consensus of concentration. But you do not feel this way. Instead, you may have hundreds of weights, measurements and caloric numbers occupying your mind. You may be adding and re-adding up these numbers over and over until everything is a blur, filling your notebook not with valuable academic information but notes to yourself to “eat less.” You may be experiencing the urge to vomit, or your body might be shaking from the number of diet or laxative pills you have consumed. You may feel as though you have no control in life other than that of what you do, or do not, eat. You may feel as though your stomach and throat are burning from the inside, and nothing can stop it. As you sit there, locked in your own bubble, you do not even focus on learning any more – it is just too much.
Unpleasant? These toxic thoughts and feelings are absolutely experienced by some St Andrews students. According to Anorexia and Bulimia Care, students are one of the highest risk groups for the development of eating disorders. It is young people, aged 14-25, who are most likely to adopt these disordered behaviours, and the jump from sixth form or school to university does not help. Not only are students often a long way from home and living independently for the first time, but they are thrown into the unknown. Left to either sink or swim, students find themselves in an unfamiliar sea of social and academic change.
For some, this new environment is manageable and fun. For others, eating disorders become a way of dealing with daily life – mostly used to implement a form of control, issues with food in students quite often stem from an attempt to manage their emotional reaction to this change.
In an ideal world, eating disorders would not exist. Unfortunately they do, and they are headed on an upwards climb. But just because every single case of disordered eating cannot be instantaneously fixed or removed, it doesn’t mean we cannot push harder to help more students. Personally, I know the trauma of studying with an eating disorder. Having experienced anorexia nervosa on and off between the ages of 15 and 16, I trudged through my first year at St Andrews with a colossal amount of stress, pain and worry on my shoulders. I was not alone – whether it was a friend confiding in me about someone else’s destructive eating habits or meeting people first hand who struggle daily to adopt a healthy relationship towards food, I have encountered individuals who go through the above proposed situation every single day. After sitting in my room last year re-reading lists of foods and watching clumps of my hair wash down the drain, I simply propose that we talk and normalize this issue more.
Undoubtedly, the community of St Andrews caters well to both their students and residents. From posters and Facebook events about sports, student nights and free language classes, we are lucky to live in an environment where creativity and positivity is strongly encouraged. Student Services is a great support base for practically any student con- cern, and time is always made to help those who ask. But for those who are too afraid to ask or are unaware of the available support, where are the posters in our community dedicated specifically to eating disorder awareness? Where are the notices on the inside of bathroom stall doors with a checklist of behaviours to watch-out for? Of course, not every single illness or issue can be catered to – but in a world where anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric illness and the average duration of bulimia is five years, how can we choose to not highlight this issue in an environment full of at-risk individuals?
In closing, the issue of eating disorders at university is hugely important and St Andrews is no di erent. A boost in awareness, education and discussion is needed to o er direct help to those who may need it and to foster a be er understanding of just how horrific it is to be suffering from eating problems on top of trying to complete a degree. While support may be there if sought out, specific help for eating disorder sufferers is not always spread or displayed widely enough.
So, from a St Andrews student who has been through the mill and back with anorexia, let’s promote and talk about eating disorders and where to find appropriate help.