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Campus Life + Health & Wellness

Be Well, BU: A New Approach to Eating Disorders

Student groups, admins collaborate to educate and treat affected students


Officials at the Fitness and Recreation Center are working with University administrators and student groups to make students with eating and exercise disorders aware of on-campus resources. Photo by Vernon Doucette

This week, BU Today looks at the year in wellness at BostonUniversity, reminding students, faculty, and staff of the health andsafety resources available to the University community.

Eating disorders have long been present in the college-age population — anorexia affects an estimated .5 percent of adolescent females and bulimia between 1 and 5 percent. A 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics study found an increasingly “unhealthy emphasis on diet and weight loss among children and adolescents” in the previous decade. Students studying nutrition at BU say some of their peers seem overly concerned about eating and food, which can stem from things ranging from anxiety about leaving home for the first time to the prevalence of eating as a social activity at college.

“College can be an amazing environment, and an amazingly stressful environment,” says Melissa Stone (CAS’08), the founder of Helping Hands, an eating-disorders resource and education group for students. “Eating disorders are definitely common in high school, too, but there’s a much bigger support system there. At college, it’s really easy to lose structure.”

This year, Helping Hands collaborated with Sargent College and other organizations on campus to help make students more aware of the resources available for people affected by eating disorders and to encourage them to seek help. Helping Hands volunteers were in the George Sherman Union during the last week of February with information about anorexia and bulimia, and they sold eating-disorder-awareness bracelets to help raise funds for the National Eating Disorders Association. On February 27, at 7 p.m. students were invited to join a nutritionist, a psychologist, a bulimia specialist, and a student recovering from an eating disorder for a panel discussion in the Photonics Center. The event was cosponsored by Sargent College and BU’s Nutrition Club.

The purpose of thyese activities, Stone says, was to let students know about the resources on campus, which include evaluations at Student Health Services (SHS), nutrition counseling through Sargent College, and treatment programs through BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. But the event’s organizers also hoped that more discussion would destigmatize eating disorders and highlight the real challenges that people suffering from anorexia and bulimia face.

“A lot of people don’t understand — you know, asking, why don’t you just eat?” Stone says. “They don’t understand that it’s a disease like any other.”

The University is taking more proactive steps to identify and treat students with eating and exercise disorders, particularly since the Fitness and Recreation Center opened in April 2005. Previously, students given to frequent or obsessive exercise often worked out off campus, says Warin Dexter, executive director of the Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. When the Commonwealth Avenue center opened, FitRec staffers suddenly became aware that there were students who spent hours every day working out on the cardio machines. “These kids come with these issues,” says Dexter. “But this has become so much more pronounced now. We’ve had some real serious cases here at the University.”

In the past three years, he estimates, four or five students have had their FitRec privileges suspended or revoked because of concerns about their health. Since then, FitRec has started collaborating with Sargent, Student Health Services, the University Service Center, and the athletics department to establish policy guidelines for identifying and treating students with eating disorders — a process involving identification by FitRec staff, evaluations from SHS, and then a range of treatment options, including nutritional counseling and monitored workouts.

The primary difficulty lies in the nature of disordered eating, according to Rosemary Pomponio, an SHS staff physician. “It is considered to be a major psychological disorder,” says Pomponio, who sees approximately 10 students in the clinic each year and is certain that there are many more undiagnosed cases on campus. “Often, students don’t respond to our concerns about their health,” she says, “because they don’t think they have a health problem. They’re unaware of how they look and what they’re doing to their own bodies. It’s very frustrating for a medical professional.” Universities also have a special set of obstacles, since most students are adults by law and are not obligated to obtain their medical care through Student Health Services. “You can’t force somebody to come in for treatment unless they are so obviously ill that the dean’s office will step in and exert academic pressure,” Pomponio notes.

The collaboration among subsets of BU’s student affairs divisions is intended to offset these obstacles. By keeping open lines of communication with staffers who work with students in all facets of their lives — in the classroom, in the gym, in the dorms, and in the dining halls — they’re able to better assess how severe a student’s health needs are and to figure out the best course of action when outside help becomes critical. “We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks because everybody wasn’t as aware as they could be,” says Denise Mooney, the director of the University Service Center.

In addition, new efforts are under way to help students educate themselves about eating right — and to steer them away from fad diets and unhealthy habits. Sargent College’s nutrition classes, offered at FitRec since 2005, expanded last fall to include free nutritional assessment services to any interested student, with an additional series of free strategy sessions for those judged to be in the initial stages of risky behavior. “Sometimes if a student has progressed too far, you can’t reach them,” says Stacey Zawacki, the director of Sargent’s Nutrition and Fitness Center. “We have been able to work with students before they get to that point.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

This story originally ran February 25, 2008.


One Comment on Be Well, BU: A New Approach to Eating Disorders

  • tiredness on 06.11.2009 at 8:10 am

    You can’t force somebody to come in for treatment unless they are so obviously ill that the dean’s office will step in and exert academic pressure.

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