University Students Prone to Developing Eating Disorders, Researcher Says

August 24, 2017 Updated: August 24, 2017

For most students, starting their first year at university can be a new and exciting experience, but for some the pressure to adapt quickly can lead to serious eating disorders, experts warn.

According to Sally Willis-Stewart, who runs the Nutrition Education Centre at UBC Okanagan (UBCO), coping with the stress of life on campus, for new students in particular, often triggers eating disorders.

 “When young students are transitioning into the university environment it is extremely stressful and competitive,” said Willis-Stewart. “And unfortunately, one of the ways students try to cope manifests in an eating disorder along with many other mental issues.”

One out of five Canadian youth aged 16–25 will grapple with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating at some stage. Of those, four out of five are young women.

Willis-Stewart, a professor with the department of Health and Social Development at UBCO who has done extensive research on the illness, said exact numbers for students are hard to come by because those who suffer from eating disorders often conceal it due to the stigma surrounding it.

Because of the stigma, the numbers of those affected could be even higher, she said.

“But no matter what the number is, even if it was small, they need help. It’s sad. And whatever we do, if it can even save one or two students, then it’s absolutely worth it.”

Unfortunately, one of the ways students try to cope manifests in an eating disorder along with many other mental issues.
— Sally Willis-Stewart , Nutrition Education Centre UBC Okanagan

Willis-Stewart saw an opportunity to help students before their eating disorder becomes a serious health concern by developing a first-of-its-kind prevention program to raise awareness and well-being among those most vulnerable.

She said diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders often get neglected in the health-care system, and her campus program has been very successful in spreading awareness, with scheduled events that help create a dialogue among young adults.

This and other efforts have helped more students seek assistance and counselling who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.

“One of the events we have done is called Mirrorless Mondays. The emphasis there is to focus on what’s inside and not what you look like,” said Willis-Stewart.

The constant need to look thin and attractive has been bolstered exponentially in the age of social media, according to eating disorder experts, and the age demographic of young students makes them very vulnerable, with the competition for photo “likes” being rampant in Facebook and Instagram feeds.

“People on social media tend to only show pictures of themselves in the most flattering light, and sometimes even doctor the photos,” said Dr. Paul Garfinkel, an eating disorder expert at the University of Toronto.

“So this can make young women worry about themselves and can lead to binge eating, purging, and behaviours that are very hurtful.”

Lack of training for doctors

Garfinkel, a board member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said early recognition of an eating disorder is key—from family, school, peers, or health-care professionals.

He said eating disorders often don’t get enough attention because they aren’t taken seriously as a real mental health disorder, and Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Blake Woodside agrees.

“These are people who are discriminated against at every turn,” said Woodside.

“They are told they do not have an actual medical illness. They are told that they are vain, silly girls preoccupied with their appearance and if they would smarten up and eat, everything would be fine.”

Part of the problem in diagnosing and treating eating disorders, Woodside said, is the lack of training among health-care professionals in the field.

At present, of the nearly 4,800 licensed psychiatrists in Canada, slightly more than a dozen specialize in eating disorders, according to research presented by a parliamentary standing committee in 2014 on the status of women.

Woodside notes that out of four years of medical school and two years of family practice residency, doctors receive just five hours of training on eating disorders. And the average wait time to treat eating disorders at hospitals is four to six months—and that’s at a weight of 65 to 70 pounds.

“If this was an illness that affected middle-aged men and they were told it would take four to six months to get treatment for an illness with a 20 percent death rate, there would be riots in the streets in every city in this country,” Woodside said.

“Anorexia nervosa is the most lethal of psychiatric illnesses, with a death rate of around 20 percent. Not sick or unhappy young women—that’s death, dead young people.”

Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.