University offers assistance for victims of eating disorders
Letter to the Editor
I am commenting on the Sept. 27 Viewpoint article entitled "ND needs to hear the silent screams of eating disorders." The author presents a powerful picture of the nature and extent of eating disorders within the college student population and specifically at Notre Dame. The two major suggestions are: 1) The University must do more, and 2) Students with eating disorders ("victims") must begin to admit they have a problem. I would like to address each of these suggestions.
Currently, the University Counseling Center (UCC) addresses eating disorders both through education and remediation. Through sponsored talks in dorms, through consultations with concerned others about someone they love who suffers from an eating disorder, and through the National Screening Day for Eating Disorders in February, counseling center staff attempt to inform, educate and promote eating disorder awareness. UCC also adresses eating disorders through clinical intervention. Last year, approximately 12 percent of 800 clients seen in individual counseling were judged to be suffering from an eating disorder by their counselors. Sixty students came in with concerns about a friend. We estimate that well over half of them were concerned about a possible eating disorder.
The process of getting help at UCC for an eating disorder typically includes a medical evaluation and an assessment of the history and severity of the problem. This leads to recommendations for treatment. Treatment may include nutritional education, the use of psychotropic medication, individual psychological counseling and/or a structured group. All or any of these treatments may be used depending on the nature of the problem and the desires of the client.
For some students, what we can offer is sufficient. For other students, what we offer is not sufficient. More intensive treatment is needed through specialized intensive outpatient or inpatient settings.
An eating disorder is often only noticeable when it becomes more advanced. People who suffer with an eating disorder develop many ways to hide their problem. Secrecy is essential to maintaining their goals. Seeking help includes "letting out the secret" which is very, very difficult. Given that it is an addiction, students with this problem believe that they need their eating disorder to attain their goals just as an alcoholic feels that he or she needs alcohol to live. They do not see alternatives, nor do they believe that treatment is in their best interest. Because avoiding detection and having a somewhat distorted self-image are part of the problem, it is important that we never give the impression that we are blaming the "victims" for their problem when they resist either detection or professional help.
The author makes many good points. We can and should do more. We must be caring and concerned without becoming vigilantes. Our staff and the Health Center staff are currently discussing ways to improve what we are now doing and to enhance our referral network. We also, as a community of students, faculty and administrators, need to improve our environment to a point where body shape and weight are less emphasized or criticized. We know that this behavior contributes to the problem of eating disorders. Finally, we need to care for each other and encourage our friends to seek help rather than ignore manifestations of a problem. I would like to thank the author for reminding all of us of the extent and complexity of the problem.
Patrick W. Utz, Ph.D.
Director, University Counseling Center
Concurrent Associate Professor of Psychology
September 29, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, October 1, 1999