University life is filled with academic and social pressure which can give rise to increased mental health concerns. One class of mental illness that affects many students is eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), it is estimated that between 10 and 20 per cent of women and four to 10 per cent of men attending university suffer from an eating disorder. These illnesses are characterized by irregular eating habits and an extreme fixation with eating, food, weight, and body image. These often-undiagnosed illnesses can lead to struggles with depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse.
The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Eating Disorder Resource and Support Centre (EDRSC) aims to ensure that McGill students are aware of the impact of eating disorders and disordered eating as well as the support available for them on and off campus. In doing this, the organization is hosting its second National Eating Disorder Awareness Week starting Feb. 3.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Paloma Helper, Training Coordinator, and Sophia Esterle, General Coordinator, explained how the centre was created to offer peer support and a safe space for better connection, healing, and understanding of eating disorders.
“Our mission in terms of peer support is to create a financially accessible, non-judgemental, non directional space that is aware of and educated around eating disorders,” Helper and Esterle wrote.
Learning and understanding the characteristics of different types of eating disorders can help increase awareness of these complex diseases. There are various types of eating disorders, each taking on a different form. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the three most common. Anorexia occurs when an individual participates in self-starvation, bulimia is when someone engages in binge eating followed by purging, and binge eating disorder is when one has frequent occurrences of eating large quantities of food. Eating disorders are treatable illnesses; however, the symptoms and consequences can be deadly without medical attention.
There is no known cause for the onset of these illnesses, but research suggests that a combination of factors can play a part in the development of eating disorders. Sasha Bell, Communications Coordinator for the EDRSC, described how stigma surrounding mental illnesses discourages individuals from accessing proper care.
“One of the main goals of Eating Disorder Awareness Week is to start conversations around eating disorders,” Bell wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Stigma is a huge barrier to education and accessing support, and we want to provide space for people to discuss their experiences and learn more about eating disorders.”
With the rapid influence of social media and distorted images portrayed online, many stereotypes exist surrounding the various types of eating disorders. In society today, there is a misconception that eating disorders are exclusive to a cisheteronormative standard of womanhood. However, this assumption can be dangerous to men and members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
“Possibly the most pervasive myth about eating disorders is that they only affect white, thin young women,” Bell wrote. “In reality, eating disorders can affect anyone.”
Research suggests that disordered eating behaviour, particularly compulsive exercise, is an increasingly prominent issue among straight men. A recent study found that another group at higher risk are transgender individuals, who reported experiencing disordered eating at almost four times the rate of their cisgender peers.
Overall awareness can lead to prevention and treatment of eating disorders. Understanding its complexity helps one practice increased consciousness and empathy for those who are struggling with disordered eating. Awareness of these health concerns can also help decrease the stigma often associated with such mental illnesses.
“I hope students who come to our events leave with a more nuanced understanding of eating disorders, and increased knowledge of how they could go about accessing support,” Bell wrote.
Students seeking resources and support for eating disorders should visit https://ssmu.ca/resources/eating-disorders.