Eating Disorders in College Students: Effects on Mental Health

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According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “35% of ‘normal’ dieters progress to pathological dieting.” For a number of reasons, college students are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder that could have long-term adverse health effects.

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Alarming Rates of Eating Disorders in College Students

According to NEDA, 10% to 20% of female college students and 4% to 10% of male college students have an eating disorder.

The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in College Students

A multi-collegiate study of female college athletes found that 2% had an eating disorder and 25.5% exhibited symptoms at a subclinical level. Another study indicated that 30% to 70% of college students seeking eating disorder treatment receive medical weight-loss treatment instead of mental health treatment. Furthermore, just 6% of college students with disordered eating were asked about their eating habits by a health care provider.

While the average age of eating disorder onset varies by condition, an estimated 4.4% to 5.9% of teens enter college with a preexisting, untreated eating disorder. These conditions have also increased dramatically: 4.2% of college students were following a weight loss diet in 1995; by 2008, this percentage jumped to 22%.

Three Common Eating Disorders

One of the more common eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, a condition marked by extreme limits on food consumption as well as severe weight-related misconceptions. The two types of anorexia nervosa are restrictive and binge-purge. Examples of anorexia symptoms per the National Institutes of Health include extreme thinness, intense fear of gaining weight, thinning of the bones, infertility, and brain damage.

Another common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, a condition marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating while feeling a lack of control and purging, all while either maintaining a normal weight or being overweight. The National Institutes of Health lists common symptoms as gastrointestinal problems, chronically inflamed and sore throat, worn tooth enamel due to stomach acid exposure, and severe dehydration from purging.

A third common eating disorder is binge eating disorder, a condition marked by feeling a lack of control over eating, not following binge episodes with extreme weight loss attempts, or obesity. Binge eating disorder symptoms per the National Institutes of Health include eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific period of time, eating alone in secret, eating fast during binge episodes, and eating until uncomfortably full.

The Intersection of Mental Health and Eating Disorders

Though individuals struggling with an eating disorder exhibit many physical symptoms, the underlying causes are closely linked to mental health.

How Mental Health Impacts Eating Disorders

Many factors increase the likelihood that college students will develop an eating disorder. These factors include increased workload, increased peer pressure, less structure, anxieties, poor self-esteem, and all-you-can-eat dining halls.

Dieting, bingeing, and purging may begin as a way for students to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of their lives. According to the Child Mind Institute, “Disordered eating behavior ranges from fad dieting, or attempts at ‘clean’ eating by restricting fats, dairy, or gluten to more severe manifestations such as over-exercising, abusing laxatives, bingeing, or purging, which are serious but don’t yet meet the criteria for an eating disorder.” An eating disorder is diagnosed when behaviors last long term and become dangerous, all-consuming, and uncontrollable.

The Road to Healthy Eating

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) play an invaluable role in treating individuals struggling with eating disorders.

The Role of PMHNPs

One of the ways PMHNPs can help people overcome eating disorders is to offer various psychological treatments like nutritional counseling, medications like antidepressants, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Another key way they can help is by collaborating with other health care professionals to help treat underlying mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD.

Resources For College Students With Eating Disorders

One resource college students can use is the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). The organization serves individuals and families affected by eating disorders. They also strive to prevent eating disorders, support the discovery of cures, and provide access to quality care.

Another key resource is the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). This organization works in areas of support, awareness, advocacy, referral, education, and prevention of eating disorders. They also offer free support programs, such as Grocery Buddy, Recovery Mentorship, and a YouTube recovery channel.

A third resource for college students is the Eating Disorders Coalition. This organization strives to raise awareness of eating disorders as a public health priority by developing relationships with federal agencies, Congress, and national and local health organizations. They also successfully advocated for the passage of the Anna Westin Act, which improved health care professional training and clarity of mental health parity to better serve individuals with eating disorders.

Overcoming a Serious Issue

In a society fixated on image and physical appearance, college students are especially vulnerable to developing eating disorders. PMHNPs and health care professionals are instrumental in providing treatment that exposes damaging beliefs, encourages a healthy lifestyle, and supports the well-being of college students.