Many college students have untreated eating disorders before they leave for college, and they leave home without fully planning ahead. They may be recovering from an eating disorder but can’t adequately handle the stresses at college without relapse. Or they never had an eating disorder but developed one in college because they didn’t have the support, knowledge, and tools to avoid it.
Twenty-five percent of college students will suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or orthorexia. You don’t have to be one of them. It’s not something that’s just a fluke, and there are definitely many steps you can take to prevent and shield yourself from eating disorders.
Your college years can be either the very best years of your life or the worst, especially if you have an eating disorder. I’ve counseled many college students who went through college trying to handle their eating disorders symptoms and succeed in school at the same time, and it did not work out very well at all.
These days, kids from elementary school age are hammered with the message that they need to prepare academically for college. When I was getting ready for college years ago—I won’t say how many—I really didn’t start thinking about college until maybe the end of sophomore year and the beginning of junior year. In contrast, my children were given all kinds of information about college starting in middle school, so the pressure is on earlier than ever to decide about college.
Although students are given tons of information on how to get into college, there’s practically zero information on how to prepare emotionally for the transition to college; and they’re given zero tools on how to succeed emotionally in college. I see it as a question of IQ (intelligence quotient) versus EQ (emotional quotient). There’s a lot of academic support on how to get into college, but what young people also need desperately is sound information and advice on how to be emotionally healthy at school.
Zero tools. IQ versus EQ. In terms of emotional intelligence, young people are often not prepared.
If you think or know you have an eating disorder or eating disorder symptoms, don’t think it will get better on its own once you go to college. I see it every year. High school seniors come to see me for counseling and tell me, “Yes I have an eating disorder but I don’t need help,” “It’s going to get better once I leave for college and start a new chapter in my life.”
Or, more than often, I get students who come to me for therapy and they’re already at college. They had the eating disorder before they left, and they never got treatment at home. Now they’re dealing with all the stress of college AND trying to get better from the eating disorder. It’s a disaster.
So if you think you have symptoms or you think you have an eating disorder, be brave and get help NOW. Get help before you leave for school and remember you don’t have to fit a diagnosis in order to suffer from eating disorder symptoms. Symptoms that seem mild can escalate quickly once you leave for college. For example, if you’re compulsively exercising, it can quickly turn into exercise purging once you start to deal with all the change and responsibilities of college student life.
If you’re only purging once a week and the diagnosis for bulimia is twice a week, (that’s the official definition); you still need help, or it will get worse once the stress builds. But here’s some good news. With the right help you can get better quickly and go to school healthy.
In fact, when high school seniors come to see us at The Body Image Counseling Center in April or May, we usually can get them off to school symptom-free by September. Just make sure you go to a qualified therapist and nutritionist who know what they’re doing.
Please don’t be afraid to get help before you go.
Parents, this is the most important tip for you: If you think or know your child has an eating disorder, do not let them go to college before they get quality treatment. You need to leverage your power with love to force the issue and help them push through any denial, and make sure your child is completely healthy before they leave the safety of home.
Once again, I am sad to say I receive calls from parents every year saying: “My child just turned eighteen; they’re a legal adult, they have an eating disorder, now they're refusing treatment” and the parents have lost a lot of power to get them the help they so desperately need. You don’t want to be in this situation. You want make sure you use your legal power, leveraged with love, before they turn eighteen.
There are actually ways you can turn things around and “convince” your child to get help after that age (I cover a lot of these techniques in my Parents' Quick Start Recovery Guide) but it is a lot more complicated and stressful to be in that situation. Be brave and get support as soon as possible to make sure your child doesn't head off to college sick, hoping they’ll get better on their own. If they’re already in college, it’s never too late. They may need to make some tough decisions about what they need to do to get healthy, but it’s not impossible.
How can we help? Please remember we offer emergency parent coaching sessions (even on the weekends!) and free 15 minute consults to help answer your questions, address your worries, and come up with a solid plan for your or your child’s recovery.