College works to address eating disorders

However, for someone with an eating disorder, this everyday scenario is an entirely different situation. Food is the enemy, and each calorie is terrifying.

Eating disorders usually manifest themselves in one of two forms-anorexia nervosa, which often times consists of extreme food restriction, and bulimia, which involves a binge/purge cycle. Both are characterized by a fear of weight gain and unhealthy eating patterns that can lead to malnutrition and excessive weight loss. We have heard all this before. The important question, then, is whether eating disorders are a reason for concern at the College.

The cause of eating disorders remains unknown. However, according to Associate Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson, who specializes in eating disorders and eating disorders prevention, certain groups have higher tendencies to develop eating disorders.

According to Sanderson, eating disorders are more prevalent in women than in men, and more common in white women. They also occur more frequently in families from middle- to upper-class backgrounds and also in people who come from families with perfectionistic or competitive tendencies. “Does that sound like anyone you know?” she asked. “That describes a lot of people at Amherst College.”

This is not to imply that eating disorders are more widespread at the College than at other institutions. “But eating disorders are a particular problem that people at Amherst College are confronted with,” said Sanderson. “Those populations [who tend to have eating disorders] are overrepresented at Amherst, so it is certainly something we need to worry about.”

Official numbers of how many people at the College are afflicted with eating disorders is unknown. An official survey will be conducted in February of next year, but currently the College lacks statistics to gauge the seriousness of eating disorders on campus.

“All we’re going from now is who is in treatment with eating disorders with the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment [EDAT] team or anecdotal stories from dorms about people who are not in treatment but are manifesting symptoms,” said Denise McGoldrick, the director of Health Education.

Ceridwen Cherry ’06, a resident counselor in Moore Dormitory, said that she definitely feels cause for concern on campus. “Unfortunately, eating disorders are one of the most common serious situations RCs have to deal with,” she said.

Fortunately for someone with an eating disorder or someone who suspects that a friend has an eating disorder, the College provides a large number of resources. “I know there has recently been some concern that the administration on campus isn’t doing enough to deal with eating disorders, such as the recent Student editorial, and I have to say that surprises me,” said Cherry. “Perhaps most people don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes. The thing about eating disorders is that you have to handle the situation very carefully.”

Cherry noted that many tend to expect a counselor, dean or RC to immediately solve a situation of disordered eating. “It’s a lot, lot more complicated than that,” she said. “Usually what people don’t realize is that a lot of really concerned people are working hard behind the scenes to do everything they can to help a person, but that isn’t always visible.”

Some of those concerned people comprise the EDAT team, which involves nurse practitioner Diane Norman, psychotherapist Ruth Kane-Levit and nutritionist Arleen Thomson. A student who seeks help can come to the Health Center and be assessed by the EDAT.

The Center can medically examine a student, and the EDAT addresses each issue linked with eating disorders. Thomson works with students to see how they can eat normally, while Kane-Levit helps students address underlying psychological problems.

The College provides many options for students. Those who do not want to see all three members of the EDAT team can consult with one or two of them. Students who do not want services on campus or have need for more frequent counseling sessions can be referred to outside therapists. “There’s a lot of outside therapists who are really good and work well with college students,” said McGoldrick.

RCs are also extensively trained in how to deal with eating disorders. According to Cherry, RC training involves a full day of discussion on to recognize eating disorders and how to help residents who may be affected. Members of EDAT and Health Education also advise RCs on where to find available resources.

Beyond the treatment aspect, the EDAT, Health Center, RCs and student groups work together to educate the campus in creating a more accepting environment. The EDAT team annually sends out an all-campus mailing to inform students of available services. The letter has not been sent out yet this year since the team usually first reaches out to people who sought treatment last year.

Student Health Educators (SHEs) also cooperate with the group Beyond Bodies, an organization specifically targeted towards improving body image and awareness on campus, chaired this year by Andrea Gyorody ’07 and Sarah Craver ’08. The group last year brought in a speaker from Syracuse University who spoke about compulsive exercise. Beyond Bodies also continually posts flyers on campus in addition to hosting Body Image Awareness Week activities in the spring.

Beyond full-blown eating disorders, however, is a problem of disorder eating habits and distorted body image. “Most people categorize others’ eating habits as ‘normal’ or indicative of an eating disorder. But, in actuality, how [healthily] people eat runs along a spectrum, with three balanced meals every day on one end, and with actual eating disorders, like anorexia and bulemia on the other,” said Gyorody.

Craver added that she believes most people fall in the middle range of the spectrum between healthy and disordered eating. “For example, many people follow certain ‘rules’ for eating that may be dangerous to their health in the long-term, and/or may simply foster a negative relationship with food,” she said.

McGoldrick said that at a basic level there needs to be a halt on compliments about weight loss and physical appearance. “I think all the discourse on diets and this and that is just not helpful. It really is triggering to people with eating disorders and for other people, it gets them thinking that maybe they should be on a diet,” she said.

This involves a de-emphasis of food and eating. “It’s become larger than it ought to be,” said McGoldrick. Craver added, “This means no more negative talk about fat or thin people, no more conversations about dieting in Val, no more outright comparing ourselves to one another!”

For those who actually have an eating disorder, however, seeking help may be the hardest step. “I think there are many students who would benefit from receiving help, and we have the resources to provide them, but they have to seek help first,” said Sanderson.

McGoldrick said that those who know someone with an eating disorder but not seeking treatment should continue to be supportive and not reject those who are not yet ready for help. “Because I think it is a big process to decide that the eating disorder which is a large part of your life isn’t working for you anymore. I think it is a pretty big step, and friends can often say the wrong things,” she said.

Sanderson said that if someone should decide to seek help, the College is able to provide a variety of resources. “There are students who are struggling with it themselves or there are students who have sisters/friends who might be struggling with it. They should contact someone for help,” she said. “It is really something that could make someone’s college experience miserable, and that really is the best scenario. Even if someone survives it there are a variety of long-term effects that can result if it is not treated such as infertility or osteoporosis.”

McGoldrick added that friends of those with eating disorders should seek help also if needed. “They can consult with me or any member of the eating disorder team, and the RCs are trained. But I think for people who are worried about someone it can often be very consuming. They have a big test coming up, but they’re worried sick about someone who hasn’t eaten for days. So they need our help too, the worried friends,” she said.