According to the 2015 National College Health Assessment, 5.8 percent of College of William and Mary students reported experiencing an eating disorder within the last twelve months, a rate which has remained constant since 2012. However, the College’s website, First Year Experience programs and the Counseling Center lack resources that specifically target students with eating disorders.
In terms of online resources, the Counseling Center’s website has a page providing information on binge eating and starving. On the College’s webpage for Health Education Resources on the Web, the only link under Eating Disorders reroutes to a student organization called the Student Collegiate Awareness Regarding Eating Smart Team. CARES was listed as an initiative that the Office of Health Promotion currently coordinates or participates in. The most recent update on the Student CARES website dates to Oct. 30, 2010.
Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Kelly Crace said he was not previously aware of the website’s link to the defunct CARES page.
“These are the things we need to catch and fix and address, and that’s an example of a breakdown of the information as to how it should work,” Crace said.
Counseling Center Director Warrenetta Mann said that the website is currently being reviewed.
“The website is under major review and because there is so much information there, it is taking some time to get it reconfigured,” Mann said in an email. “My apologies about the links that go nowhere.”
Assistant Director of Fitness and Wellness at Campus Recreation Jenny Fisher was the former faculty sponsor of CARES. When she arrived at the College in 2004, the group was already established on campus. According to Fisher, CARES used to sponsor a program called Love Your Body Week. The group eventually dissolved due to decreased student attendance at events and a lack of student leadership.
Fisher said she supported students who want to become involved with eating disorder awareness and advocacy.
“I think it would be nice if there was a group who wanted to get the movement started again —something to get the students talking about it,” Fisher said. “Because what’s unfortunate about CARES being dissolved now is there’s just not as much positive talk going on that gives students a sense that there is something being done about it. I think before it’s not like we were changing anything administratively, but it gave people a sense that it was an issue being talked about, that people cared about. It’s definitely not the case that people don’t care about it. I care about it — we just don’t have a group anymore.”
Although Fisher said she was passionate about body image and eating disorder awareness, she also stated that she was not a professional psychologist or therapist.
“It’s a big project to take on, and it would be nice if there was a specific team on campus that could specialize in eating disorders, but I know our Counseling Center is understaffed as it is, and they have a hard time seeing the students, the demand, as it is, so unfortunately with any really specific mental health issue, they have to refer out,” Fisher said.
A junior who wished to remain anonymous said he did not find the help he needed for his eating disorder through the College. After he started restricting his food intake during the first semester of his freshman year, he saw a therapist at the Counseling Center during the spring and early fall of 2014. He stated that during his discussions with a Counseling Center therapist the words “eating disorder” were never used.
“I had the symptoms; I pretty much knew what I had. When I looked online, the symptoms were there,” he said. “[The Counseling Center] didn’t really diagnose me with anything. I think we kind of talked about it in terms of disordered eating, just, like, behavior in general, not the actual diagnosis, and really that wasn’t even brought up.”
He began to see a counselor in the Williamsburg community, and during winter break of his sophomore year, he was hospitalized in an inpatient facility.
“I don’t know if I would have ever gotten better if I just went to the Counseling Center for the next couple months; that wouldn’t have helped,” he said. “I didn’t get the kind of treatment I needed. It took me until actual treatment to realize it. They just didn’t have the knowledge there at all. They didn’t seem like they had the means to effectively treat someone with an eating disorder.”
Psychology professor Meghan Sinton-Miller discussed the importance of early intervention in students with eating disorders. She said that early diagnosis and treatment could help prevent long-term medical and psychological effects.
“The more prolonged starvation comes into play, the more severe or pronounced the situation can be and may require hospitalization, medical stabilization; sometimes going on a feeding tube can be pretty complicated, so the earlier you can catch something like that, the less advanced or pronounced those biological complications are,” Sinton-Miller said.
According to Mann, the Counseling Center works with students individually to figure out the best treatment plan for them, whether that involves treatment through the Counseling Center or off-campus solutions.
“In general the Counseling Center works on a very individualized basis with students,” Mann said in an email. “This includes students living with eating disorders, body image issues, and exercise disorders. We utilize some of our groups in house, individual therapy, and the campus nutritionist when appropriate. Other students may be referred out to a specialist if that is what is indicated. It really depends on that students individual needs. With any student we will meet with them to determine the best plan for them.”
A freshman, who spoke to The Flat Hat on the condition of anonymity, said she has been seeing a therapist at the Counseling Center about her anorexia. She is transitioning from individual to group counseling and said she enjoys the support of a new group of friends who understand her and her struggle with anorexia, which began in late middle school. She said she was never formally diagnosed and did not receive formal treatment because her parents did not support therapy. She said she had to do her own research and battled with recovery herself.
As a student who recently completed her last First Year Essential Initiative, she discussed her experiences at the required orientation and post-orientation sessions.
“We all know the signs of depression now,” she said. “They go over them over and over and over again. We know signs that someone’s been sexually assaulted or abused — that’s very focused on in the William and Mary sessions they had for us, but maybe just a sliver of that attention given to eating disorders could help someone identify a problem with their friend and even something as simple as that could help save someone’s life.”
As a facilitator for one of the First Year Essential Initiatives, the junior was aware of the events that freshmen attended. He said that it is important to raise awareness for both eating disorders and healthy eating during that time.
“There should be required programming about [eating mindfully], because eating is such an important part of living, and in order to lead a healthy life you need to know how to properly nourish yourself, so I’d love to see it in orientation for freshman,” he said. “It wouldn’t be that hard to add it in; orientation’s already crazy enough as it is, but one more hour about nutritious eating would just be really great. I think that’s the biggest cause of eating disorders. I didn’t even know I had a problem.”
Crace discussed the possibility of orientation programming addressing eating issues, but he said adding another program presents difficulties.
“We already get student feedback complaining about the intensiveness of orientation, trying to cram too much information into a short period of time,” Crace said. “To add another program on such a complex issue as eating disorders would be something that would be very difficult to do given the nature of our current program and how intense it already is.”
He went on to discuss the current availability of wellness electives during orientation and programs during the academic year to inform students about healthy eating habits.
“Those programs are out there, and they are offered, and they’re advertised to the student body,” Crace said.
Keaton Ackerman ’16 recently organized one such program, a National Eating Disorders Association Walk that will take place Nov. 7. This year’s fundraising goal for the walk is $10,000 for awareness about eating disorders. Ackerman took over organizing the event this year from a former gymnastics teammate who hosted it previously. He said he has encountered various gymnasts with eating disorders over the years.
“I think that eating disorders are an extremely hands-off topic due to stigma surrounding the topic,” Ackerman said. “Because of this, I found it extremely important that we raise awareness in any way that we can. Spreading the word and allowing people to see that there is support around them is important to the message we are trying to convey.”
Crace discussed the future of treatment for and prevention of eating disorders at the College.
“We always have room for improvement, and we need to continue to serve the students that are struggling with their relationship with food or are struggling at a critical time in their life where their well-being must be the paramount thing,” Crace said.
He said that he believes the new Integrative Wellness Center that will open in the fall of 2016 will provide the means for improvement in treatment of mental health in general.